Fire destroys Hamlin County church, but pastor’s house saved

Published: Oct. 26, 2022 at 8:32 PM CDT
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NEAR CASTLEWOOD, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - Five months after a tornado destroyed at least 20 buildings in Castlewood, a fire in the countryside just a few miles outside of town scorched Hamlin Reformed Church into smoldering rubble and ashes on Wednesday morning.

No humans were injured in the blaze. Amazingly, the unoccupied pastor’s house that sits next door — less than 50 feet away — went unscathed.

“We didn’t have any wind,” Hamlin County Sheriff Chad Schlotterbeck told Dakota News Now, “or else (the house) would’ve been in trouble.”

The cause of the fire is unknown. Both the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and the Division of Criminal Investigation are looking into the evidence.

At 6 a.m., a neighbor looked out the window and could see flames coming from the church and called 9-1-1, then drove to the site, “and by the time he got here it was engulfed,” Scholtterbeck said.

The sheriff and a deputy were the first two authority figures who arrived, about 15 minutes after the call.

“The whole south side of the building was completely engulfed,” Schlotterbeck said. “Within 20 minutes, it had basically gone through the whole building.”

About a dozen fire emergency vehicles with crews from three different surrounding police departments — Castlewood, Estelline, and Hayti — helped put out the fire, and the building was still smoldering when Dakota News Now arrived about six hours after the initial report of the flames.

”The pews were all the way to the ground,” said Del DeWall, a church board member who spent much of the day at the site helping fire crews and investigators.

“There’s nothing left of them. So, the outside shell is there. There’s nothing left inside. Nothing salvageable.

Once it was obvious the church was a “total loss,” the focus of the emergency crews shifted to Pastor Steve Biswell’s house, which ended up with minimal smoke damage.

Biswell — who has been the church leader for over three years and lives in the house alone — was alerted of the blaze while in his motel room in Kansas City, near where some of his family lives. He drove approximately 450 miles and arrived to the scene just before 2 p.m.

The pastor was in a calm and positive mood when he talked to Dakota News Now shortly after surveying the premises, considering the circumstances.

”You know, God knew about this moment a long time ago,” Biswell said. “I don’t think we’re stressed about it. It’s stuff.”

DeWall echoed that sentiment about a structure that had housed the 120-year-old congregation for the last 40 years.

”It’s a building,” DeWall said. “The church are the people. Some people don’t look at it that way, but I see it as a building. It was a place we got together.”

Biswell said that, indeed, there will be some members who, like DeWall, have worshipped at Hamlin Reformed their whole life. And unlike DeWall, “they’ve shed some tears,” Biswell said. “Then, we’ll try to figure out how we work through this together, because God is God. We’re not, and we’ll be together.

The two men said about 90 people attend sermons every Sunday. They come from a wide variety of ages — including a large swath of “young people and families — and from several communities in the area, like Castlewood, Estelline, Hayti, Hamlin, and Watertown. Biswell said nine different zip codes are commonly represented.

This includes some Castlewood families whose houses were destroyed in May’s tornado.

Gov. Kristi Noem grew up on a family ranch and farm very close to the church, and told Dakota News Now on Wednesday that she has attended services there and has family and friends who have been a part of the congregation over the years.

In a written statement to Dakota News Now, Noem wrote:

“It’s tough to see a community so close to my heart go through tough situation after tough situation. Castlewood has proven their grit this past year — they’ve been “Castlewood Strong.” And I’ll continue to support them through their recovery.”

Biswell said that within hours, “all sorts of people reached out, all sorts of phone calls, all sorts of texts, asking ‘how can I help out.’”

There are a lot of “moving parts,” from investigating the cause, to figuring out a temporary home for services.

”We just want to make sure our people are OK,” Biswell said. “And we’ll find a temporary place to be together, and we’ll pray together and maybe cry together, and dream a little bit. We’ll be OK.”