An unusual light: The 1960 fire at OLP
By Mike Meyers
The weather was as expected for a winter night in Wisconsin. The temperature in Marshfield was exceptionally cold – it was -15 degrees at 8 a.m. – the morning of Tuesday, January 6, 1960, and light snow was predicted.
And then, a call came in on the phone in the fire station in City Hall, located on East Second Street, Marshfield.
A passerby had noticed “an unusual light” through the windows of Our Lady of Peace (OLP) Church at 1300 West Fifth Street as he passed.
Wally Schirpke stopped, went inside to investigate and discovered the fire. He raced to the parish rectory, and from what he had described, Reverend James Lane, an instructor at Columbus High School, placed a frantic call to the fire station at 5:46 p.m.
The on-duty firemen scrambled from their supper table on the second floor, down the brass pole to the floor below and donned their fire gear.
Considering the nature of the call, a second alarm was initiated and the second shift was also called in by telephone and all responded to the scene with each piece of fire equipment available. It was a brisk ride up West Fifth Street in the open cab fire engines and ladder truck, and rescue squad. Sirens on the trucks pierced the air, alerting people along the route that something was going on.
When the first fire unit pulled up to the front of the church, it was obvious they were facing a serious challenge. A fire inside caused each window to glow “as red as it could be,” according to fire Captain Elmer Schreiber; and thick smoke from the fire billowed out the front doors as they tried to enter the building.
Four hose lines were laid – two from a hydrant at the northwest corner of the intersection of West Fifth Street and Columbus Avenue, and the others at nearby intersections.
Windows on the east side of the church cracked and eventually broke from the intense heat. Firemen were hampered by the thick smoke, and needed to use oxygen breathing equipment to get at the blaze in the sanctuary and nave of the church.
The searing flames had also marched their way across the vaulted ceiling. A team of firemen climbed ladders outside the church to hack holes in the roof with their fire axes to ventilate the smoke.
Continued next week