Clover minister's house destroyed in early morning fire

jmcfadden@heraldonline.comJanuary 22, 2014 

— The Rev. Sam Thompson called it a new beginning, born from flames and ashes.

Firefighters said it was a total loss, destroyed by a blaze that engulfed a bedroom, ripped through the attic, collapsed part of the ceiling and rekindled hours later.

On Wednesday, Thompson, 76, who has spent the last 18 years sheltering the homeless, found himself without his own shelter when his brick home burned after fire officials say combustible materials were left too close to a heater. The fire has been ruled an accident.

Just before 6 a.m., crews with the Clover, Bethany-Santiago, Bethel and York fire departments were sent to Thompson’s Old North Main Street home in a small complex that includes his church, two homeless shelters, a food pantry and a thrift store, said Lou Jarvis, a volunteer with the Clover Fire Department.

Flames leaped from a bedroom into the attic, where “open air ... and wood” helped the house go up in minutes, Jarvis said. Firefighters evacuated the building and fought the fire “defensively” when parts of the roof caved in, Jarvis said.

Within two hours, crews extinguished the flames, but they spent much of the morning dousing the house with water and foam to smother hot spots. Jarvis estimated that the fire caused about $150,000 in damage, determining it to be a total loss. Later in the day, the flames rekindled, officials said.

The fire caused minor burn and water damage to a two-story building adjacent to Thompson’s house, Jarvis said. The building is a garage on the first-floor and the women’s homeless shelter on the second.

No injuries were reported, and the six people who had been staying in the house, which included Thompson, his wife Annie, their daughter Leighanna McGill, her son and two other children, escaped safely.

Much of that has to do with McGill, who said her son, 4-year-old Dayvion, woke her up and told her the room was on fire.

McGill suspects that her nephew, while sleepwalking, passed a space heater in the room. She said the cover might have snagged onto the heater, sparking flames. After her son nudged her awake, McGill said she tried to put out the flames with water. It didn’t work. She quickly ran to wake her parents and they left the house.

McGill and her son had been staying with her parents since Christmas Eve after their clothes and valuables were lost because of heavy water damage in an unrelated incident. Now, they have lost all their possessions again.

“Everything we’ve started over with ... is now gone,” she said.

So is Thompson’s “man cave,” which he decorated in “Carolina blue” and where he stored a television and computer.

As firefighters soaked his home, Thompson sat in the men’s shelter, surrounded by supporters who greeted him with hugs and well-wishes. One man said it was ironic that Thompson and his wife were without a home after providing shelter for countless numbers of people.

But, Thompson is adamant that he's not homeless.

“That was not my home," he said. "My home is up yonder. What’s God’s will is God’s will. That stuff is not God."

He said he plans to stay in his ministry's men’s shelter, currently home to 10 homeless men. Four women live in the nearby women’s shelter.

The American Red Cross is assting the family with food, clothes and other necessities, said Stephanie White, Red Cross executive director.

Thompson first started his church, New Beginnings Baptist Church, in 1995. He and his wife began housing the homeless at the old Colonial Motel before moving onto the Old North Main Street property. They opened a thrift store, which distributes donated clothes and items to needy. The church also operates God’s Kitchen, a food pantry feeding about 150 people who are sick, disabled or shut-in five days a week. On Sunday, members of his congregation plan to host an anniversary service commemorating his 27 years in ministry.

“Hundreds and hundreds of people have found a new beginning here," Thompson said. “Now, it looks me and Mrs. Annie will have to find a new beginning."

‘I love this man’

In 2009, Stanley Bratton found his new beginning under Thompson’s watch. He came to the men’s shelter as an alcoholic. He left 10 months later without an addiction, but with an appreciation for “a God who is loving, forgiving, caring.”

Bratton, 48, rushed to the shelter Wednesday morning after his brother told him about the fire. He sat next to Thompson, hugging him and holding his hand.

“All God’s children come together in crisis," Bratton said. “I love this man and his wife to death.”

Like Bratton, Otis Love, 56, is a “product of this shelter.” Like Bratton, he rushed to the shelter when he learned of the fire.

After working as a mechanic on a space shuttle program for two decades, he said he returned to his hometown of York, where he battled with alcoholism and drugs. He lost his home and spent four years at the Lighthouse shelter.

He was part of efforts to build God’s Kitchen and the women’s shelter, he said. He also was the shelter mechanic, fixing “Fords and Chevys,” he said. Now, he works on Bentleys as a mechanic for Vision Metering in York.

Love said he never would have gotten there if not for Thompson, who helped make him better.

“He’s my friend, my confidant," Love said, and “a father figure."

Lucas Dunnavant has known Thompson and his family almost all his life. Dunnavant's family has stayed at the shelter on-and-off for the past several years. A 19-year-old Clover High School student with plans to join the Marines, Dunnavant said he decided to live at the shelter four months ago to escape a bad home situation. When he saw flames leaping from Thompson’s home early Wednesday, he ran outside with a fire extinguisher, he said. His efforts were futile.

“Good things happen to bad people, bad things happen to good people,” he said. “They did not deserve this.”

Ask Lisa Fratantuono and she'd say the same. She’s lived in the women’s shelter since last April, when she lost her job and could no longer afford her rent. It’s her first time staying at a homeless shelter.

“You reap what you sow,” said Fratantuono, 39, as she took down clothes sizes for Thompson and his family. “They have sowed nothing but good. They’ve helped so many people.”

“God’s bigger than my problem,” Thompson said, adding that last year, he prayed that God would give his ministry a new beginning. On Wednesday, Thompson said God answered his prayers.

“Don’t ever allow your circumstances to control who you are,” he told a crowd of men huddled around him, “because when Jesus lives in you, that’s who you become."

“Now, at this youthful age, I’ve become a new creature in Christ,” he said through chuckles and elated shouts. “I’m excited ... I’m excited.”

Despite the tragedy at his doorstep, Thompson said meals would continue for shut-ins and not one person in the shelters would be displaced.

“I’m not going to stop my work just because my house is gone," he said. “God has not brought us this far just to leave us. This is just a junction in the road, and we know who will lead us down the right path. This is the place called new beginnings.”

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