Saved by the Church Bell

By Taelor Duckworth, volunteer contributor, American Red Cross

Many folks in the Middletown area know that the United Methodist Church in Middletown was the site of the Red Cross Client Assistance Center for several days. People affected by the Valley fire could go there to find help and resources available from the Red Cross. (It has since moved to the Twin Pine Casino.)

What many don’t know, is that the church has long been a sanctuary for evacuees of any disaster. In fact, in the midst of the Valley fire erupting, the Middletown UMC church bell was used to signal the alarm for townspeople to evacuate.

Evelyn Kerr-Hansen has been a member of the Middletown United Methodist Church since 1998. She currently serves as the food distribution director and oversees the church’s community service projects, her favorite being the Spirit of the Season event where they give turkeys out to families for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Evelyn has been a resident of Cobb since ’98, but says she’s never seen a fire quite like this one. She and her husband, Clay, left their cabin just in time to escape the fire. Evelyn thought it would be a good idea to open the church as she felt that’s where most people would go to find comfort and shelter. As they made their way into town, Evelyn had her keys ready to unlock the food cabinets and open the sanctuary when the church’s pastor, Claudja, called to be sure that she was opening the church. The pastor was stuck in Clear Lake and couldn’t make it across the bridge into Middletown.

As soon as Evelyn got the church doors unlocked, she heard a knock. When she opened them, she expected to find an evacuee. Instead, she found a firefighter telling her she had to leave the church.

“Why? Why would I have to leave the church?” asked Evelyn. “This is where people are going to go to be safe.”

To answer her question, the firefighter asked Evelyn to step outside the church and look back toward the mountain. Evelyn said she saw a wall of angry red flames spilling down the mountain behind the post office. She knew she would have to lock the church up and go.

“Over the years, I’ve heard several times that if anything bad were to happen, you should ring the church bell twelve times to alert the town,” said Evelyn. “For a long, long time, before there were cell phones or computers, that’s how people knew if something happened. Whether it be a child missing or in this case, a fire, you ring the bell twelve times, and people know something is wrong.”

So, that’s just what she did. Evelyn went into the chapel, wrote a short prayer for the prayer tree and proceeded to ring the church’s bell twelve times as fast as she could. From there, she went to help an elderly friend evacuate who lived near the church. On her way to the Red Cross shelter in Calistoga, she checked in on another family before finally putting Middletown in her rearview mirror.

Since returning, Evelyn has been a helping hand at the Red Cross Client Assistance Center. She made sure the volunteers were taken care of and people’s needs were being met. Several volunteers made sure to tell her that many of the people they saw from Middletown told them they wouldn’t have even known about the fire or to evacuate if it hadn’t been for Evelyn ringing the church bell.

After much convincing from Red Crossers, Evelyn eventually signed up for Red Cross assistance for her own home’s damage and says she and her husband will likely look to return to the mountain after repairing their cabin.

“God bless the Red Cross,” said Evelyn. “I have seen big, burly grown men come out of this church with tears streaming down their faces because you’ve been able to help them. Women and children, families and people from all walks of life have been here to give and receive help. It’s really amazing what you all do, and I’m glad I could be here to help the Red Cross, so the Red Cross could help these people.”

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