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Storm story crackled like lightning

Lightning hasn’t changed in the past 140 years.

Our understanding of it has.

And so has the way newspapers report storms.

That’s spelled out in black-and-white on the pages of the Springfield Daily Republic of Jan. 25, 1873, the day after a lightning strike set fire to the spire of First Lutheran Church.

The once-again repaired spire will be rededicated after 10:30 a.m. services Sunday, June 23, in a ceremony that will honor the memory of John P. Powell, the firefighter who that day died in a fall while fighting the fire.

The Republic’s report of the fire crackles with the energy of an approaching storm, its opening setting the stage like the first act of a play.

“As some apprehended, the intense heat of the past few days was followed last evening by a furious storm of lightning, thunder and rain, which was seen to be rising from the northwest for the space of an hour or more and finally broke over the city shortly before 8 o’clock.”

“The lightning was the sharpest and most vivid and the thunder the heaviest thus far this season, and the rain fell in sheets.”

With the drama of a special effects team, the paper calls the bolt that struck the church spire “perfectly blinding,” then describes the lightning in terms consistent with the science of the day and of Benjamin Franklin’s conception.

“As the fluid entered, the structure seemed to divide into 1,000 forks of flame,” a more ominous turn of phrase than President George H.W. Bush’s hopeful “1,000 points of light.”

“Instantly the fire alarm was sounded and through the drenching rain the engines came,” adds the story, which then presses breathlessly on.

“The tall spire was, almost in less than it takes to write it, a tower of flames shooting into the air to an altitude of over 100 feet, presenting a most magnificent spectacle, distinctly visible all over the city and for a great distance outside.”

The description makes the disaster seem as much awe-inspiring as awful, as much Disney as destruction.

Using 19th century language, the paper then does what director Ron Howard does as he takes us with the firefighter in the movie “Backdraft.”

“Some of the firemen manifested great intrepidity in going upon the ladders and conducting lines of hose into and upon the building, the slate and burning timbers falling about them constantly. At one time a mass of material fell within a foot of the hosemen on a ladder, but they held their post regardless.”

The paper also describes Powell’s death and its heart-rending consequences, a segment of the story that will appear in Monday’s News-Sun.

But as it winds down, the coverage begins to sound to today’s ear like an installment of “News of the Weird” with a cutlery theme.

“In the Fourth Ward,” the story says, “a lady who was standing with some forks in her hand was greatly affected, being taken with vomiting and rendered insensible for some minutes.”

“On West Main Street, a gentleman was floored by the same means and remained under the influence quite a while.”

Gymnastics and lightning seemed to come together in report from ground zero like a scene lifted from an exorcism movie: “The sexton of the Lutheran Church was inside the building at the time it was struck and testifies that he was spun across the place by an irresistible power.

The unidentified writer of the story adds a final flash toward the end when he writes: “A willow tree in a dooryard on Mill Run Street was struck and shivered into splinters from top to bottom.”

“Altogether,” the paper observed, “the air seems to have been perfectly surcharged with electricity.”

As was the Republic’s story.

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