CRESCENT CITY, Ill. (WCIA) — Firefighters say one man and 18 inches of space stood between the building standing or becoming ash. On Christmas morning it almost met its demise, but officials still can’t explain why it didn’t.

“Normally I’d be here more like 8:30 in the morning, but I was here at six in the morning,” said church musician Joe Martin. “From what I understand it was kind of important that I was here that early in the morning.”

An extreme chill and an overpowering smell of ash greeted him when he walked through Saint Joseph Catholic Church’s doors on Christmas Day. He didn’t see smoke, but he knew something wasn’t right.

That something was a crawl space furnace fire. The fire chief believes it started overnight, underneath the century-old building.

“And he said that he could see the fire had actually gone up into the ductwork,” said lifelong church member Jean Herron.

But what Fire Chief Scott Dirks couldn’t see is why the fire didn’t spread.

“Where this furnace is located is only 18 inches below the wood floor of this old church. So, yeah, we’re just lucky,” said Dirks.

“He says it’s just nothing short of a Christmas miracle and I believe that,” added Herron.

Herron said the church holds a special place in the community’s heart. So much so that these members spent their Christmas morning making sure the building continued to stand.

“It was just kind of a domino effect. The people that I called made the calls to get the heating company over,” said Martin.

“We are a close family, and I would’ve been devasted. In fact, I was shaken,” said Herron.

Dirks said when he arrived at 11 a.m., the furnace had been turned off and it was still at a temperature of 175 degrees. He says the fire could have kept going in that heat, but for whatever reason didn’t. He said if it wasn’t for dedicated members like Martin, Saint Joseph Catholic Church may not have made it to 150.

The church suffered no damage from the internal fire. The furnace has been replaced and last week’s mass was held successfully.