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Keystone church members pick through ruins

KENNY KEMP | Gazette
Keystone Apostolic Church member Donna Shamblin rings a bell congregation members found in the church’s rubble Monday.
KENNY KEMP | Gazette
Keystone Apostolic Church Pastor James Chessor (left) hugs former pastor Gary Johnson after Johnson views the church for the first time since it was struck by a landslide.
KENNY KEMP | Gazette
An undamaged carved wooden plaque of the Ten Commandments was dug out of the rubble at Keystone Apostolic Church.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A carved wooden plaque listing the Ten Commandments, hymnals, items of furniture and an electronic mixing board for a sound system were among seemingly undamaged items congregation members plucked from the ruins of the Keystone Drive Apostolic Church on Monday.

As excavator operator Dale Mobley, of Rodney Loftis & Son Contracting, painstakingly peeled away sections of the church’s roof and walls, dozens of church members kept their eyes peeled for exposed treasures, signaling Mobley to halt when something worth investigating was exposed.

“I’ve been surprised by some of the things we’ve found,” said the Rev. James Chessor, pastor of the church. Some of the more important finds were small and personal, he said.

“One of our sisters found her and her husband’s Bibles,” which had been left in the church during the last service before a landslide from neighboring Yeager Airport’s safety overrun area slammed into the building early Friday, he said. “Alice’s Bible had been passed on to her by her Mom.”

As temperatures climbed into the 70s, church members carried undamaged and reparable items into an adjacent gymnasium/community building owned by the church that escaped impact during the slide. While salvage was part of the congregation’s reason for being here on Monday, it wasn’t the only one, according to Chessor.

“Our people needed to be here to take in, and begin to process, what has happened to their church,” he said. While the devastation was obvious, so was the sense of community as church members worked together to sort through the rubble.

“These are some of the givingest people I’ve ever known,” said Gary Johnson, who preceded Chessor as pastor at Keystone Apostolic. “They’ll give some more before all this is over, but I know they will pull together and do what’s needed.”

The church, which had recently been remodeled, was one of three buildings demolished as a result of the landslide. An unoccupied brick house that Yeager Airport had bought, used as a construction site office when the safety overrun area was being built and later used as a rental property, was crushed by the landslide on Friday. During the weekend, the airport bought and demolished a house located directly across Elk Two Mile Creek from the church, at the edge of a debris dam that formed in the stream as the landslide spilled across Keystone Drive. Purchase of the site allowed the Loftis & Son crew to clear a channel wide and deep enough to abate flooding that accompanied rains Friday and Saturday.

“We entered an agreement with the homeowner and made an initial payment for a purchase option, with a full market value payment to be determined within 30 days,” said Yeager Airport Marketing Director Brian Belcher. With assistance from the Loftis crew, “we were able to move all of his stuff out of there before the home was torn down.”

Chessor said where and when his church would be rebuilt remains uncertain.

“We’ve got a lot of assessment to do later,” he said. “Right now, we’re just dealing with what’s right in front of us. But the church goes back 82 years. We’ve got the original bell from the original church, and we’ve got the cross from the steeple of this church. We just need a new building to put them on.”

Belcher said that as of Monday afternoon, 113 residents of Keystone Drive remained housed in hotel rooms provided by Yeager.

Airport and Kanawha County Emergency Management officials on Friday were “working with the utility companies and engineers to make sure the Keystone Drive homes are deemed safe for occupation and have had their utilities restored,” he said.

“We’re trying to get the inconvenienced families back in their homes as soon as safely possible,” Belcher said.

Meetings have been ongoing between Yeager’s insurance adjuster and personnel from Triad Engineering, the firm that designed the safety overrun area; Cast & Baker Contracting, the company that built it; and their insurers and attorneys, Belcher said.

“Our first priority is to get the Keystone Drive families and the church taken care of, and make everything right with them,” he said. That could mean more willing-seller buyouts in addition to compensation, he said.

There was no additional movement of the safety overrun area on Monday, according to Belcher.

How Yeager Airport will approach the stabilization and rebuilding of the safety overrun fill zone remains to be seen, he said.

“We expect to see may possible solutions to be offered by the engineering folks, and then the [Federal Aviation Administration] will have to weigh in on those. This is an all-new situation for everyone.”

Reach Rick Steelhammer at, 304-348-5169 or follow @rsteelhammer on Twitter.

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