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Jerel Katen smelled a whiff of smoke in the frigid air when he stepped from his car outside the big brick church.
Katen was first to arrive Sunday for a 6:30 p.m. meeting with other Boy Scout leaders at the United Methodist Church in Syracuse, Neb. When he unlocked the door, he spotted smoke.
He punched 911 on his cellphone, a call that eventually would pull in more than 50 volunteer firefighters from six communities. They battled a blaze on a night when an Arctic blast caused water from hoses to form ice 6 inches thick on nearby streets.
It was one of the biggest fires in Syracuse, a community of 1,800 about 25 miles southeast of Lincoln.
Battling fires is tough and dangerous, but Sunday was even rougher because of wind chills that dipped to 30 degrees below zero amid wind gusts of up to 35 mph.
The 102-year-old church, known for its hardworking volunteers and strawberry pie at the annual ice cream social, was a landmark in Syracuse. It has roots stretching back to the mid-1800s, when Methodist missionaries first preached in the area.
Church members such as Judith Moore are hopeful that the 185-member congregation will push ahead despite the loss of the building and its vibrant stained-glass windows of red, blue and gold.
They are also thankful to the men and women who stepped from warm homes into a frozen January night to try to save their church, one where memories of baptisms and weddings, funerals and confirmations, run back generations.
“It shows Nebraska people take care of each other,'' she said. “They did what they could.”
Early Sunday evening Bruce Neemann's pager blurted out a message: smoke reported at the Methodist church in Syracuse.
A blaze couldn't hit much closer to home for Neemann, chief of the town's volunteer fire department — he lives two blocks away. He jumped in his pickup and pulled up within minutes after the page.
The chief spotted smoke spilling from the church's eaves three stories up. Inside was more smoke, and it was thick.
Neemann called the Otoe County emergency dispatcher and requested help from nearby departments. Nebraska City, Palmyra, Unadilla, Otoe and Dunbar assisted.
Adam Holz, a 12-year veteran of the Syracuse department, was one of the first firefighters inside the church. He and his partner, Tim Seelhoff, pulled a hose into the main worship area.
The men spotted flames behind the altar and on the ceiling. Holz's stomach tightened. He thought of the times he'd visited the church for the annual chicken supper and the friends who were members.
The men blasted the flames with water, but they quickly popped back up. By then their air tanks were running low, so they pulled out.
Soon after, Neemann spotted flames jumping through the roof. He pulled out all the crews, fearing a roof collapse.
As the temperature outside plunged, Holz stayed warm enough in his insulated and fire-resistant gear, but at times he felt like a Popsicle.
Wind blew water onto his gloves, and as they froze it made it tough to bend his fingers. Ice coated his jacket and pants, making him move at times like a tin man in need of oil. He felt the weight of the ice on his suit. Worse, water blown by the wind felt like stinging rain against his face. But there was a job to do.
Early in the evening, a section of the church's northeast wall collapsed, spilling bricks along the side of the church and into the street.
Holz fought on long past that, finally arriving home at 2:30 a.m. Monday, smoky and exhausted.
When the sun rose Monday morning, only a shell of the church remained. The church tower had collapsed along with the roof. A thick layer of ice covered the remaining sections of wall. Iced-over Christmas wreaths still hung at the entry.
Not all was lost. The educational wing and the parsonage suffered smoke and water damage but otherwise are intact.
The cause of the blaze wasn't known Monday, but there was nothing suspicious about it, said the Rev. Gary Ganger, church pastor.
He said that it's too early to know whether the church will be rebuilt but that the congregation wants to stay together.
Ganger has only served as pastor for six months but said he knows his church members are strong and filled with faith.
“We didn't lose anything except sticks and stones,” he said. “We are the church. Where we go we will all go together.”