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Touchdown Jesus gets torched by lightning

Charred remnants remained this morning, June 15, of the large Jesus statue iconic to Interstate 75 that was destroyed following an apparent lightning strike during a thunderstorm late Monday night.

The Lawrence Bishop Music Theater at Solid Rock Church on Union Road endured smoke damage, according to officials. Damages to the King of Kings statue and the theater were estimated to be around $700,000, said Monroe Fire Chief Mark Neu.

No one was injured in the blaze.

The smell of smoke surrounded the area of the statue’s charred frame, and the pond in front of it appeared murky, witnesses said.

Keith Lewis of Middletown showed up at the church just after 7 a.m. with a camera in hand to take some shots of the remains. His wife, Stephanie, sent him.

“It has been a landmark in this area for a long time,” Lewis said. “She said she wanted picture of what was left.”

A guitarist, Lewis said he has learned to play comedian Heywood Banks’ song about the statue, “Big Butter Jesus,” and has also had his picture taking in front with his hands in the air.

Was the statue an oddity or inspiration to Lewis?

“Really a little of both,” he said, noting he doesn’t believe the nicknames were meant with any disrespect. “Kind of do hope they rebuild it.”

Neu has called a news conference for 10 a.m. today at the church. He and Police Lt. Brian Curlis said officials have been swamped with calls from media across the Tri-State this morning about the blaze.

Neu said indications are lightning struck the right hand of the statue. 911 calls received by Monroe and Warren County dispatchers confirm witnesses saw the hand on fire first.

“It was fully involved when our guys got there,” Neu said. Firefighters were dispatched at 11:16 p.m. and were on the scene at 11:22 p.m.

The church was not damaged, but audio equipment housed in the music theater was damaged, Neu said.

The touchdown jesus in Monroe, OhioImage via Wikipedia
“They had a lot of expensive audio equipment that was lost,” he said.

Earlier this morning and late Monday night, motorists were stopped along the highway and along Union Road in Monroe to watch the 62-foot King of Kings statue burn. The fire was reported at 11:15 p.m. Monday, June 14. Within minutes, all that was left was the steel frame of the statue at the church.

Church member Cassie Browning, 27, of Dayton, said she was driving north on I-75 on her way back from Tennessee when she and her family saw smoke and noticed the statue missing. “It meant so much to so many people,” Browning said. “The statue can be destroyed and gone, but Jesus can’t be.”

The fire spread to the attic area of the church’s adjacent amphitheater. There were no injuries, said Neu, who spoke just before 2:30 a.m. to media at the scene. It was a “hot fire,” he said, which made it more difficult to battle, but it was extinguished within about an hour.

In the late evening and early morning hours, social media sites such as Facebook fueled interest and onlookers: the curious, the incredulous and still others who just wanted to poke a little fun at the situation.

“God struck God, I like the irony. Jesus struck Jesus,” said Dawn Smith, 25, of Hamilton, who was among those standing outside the vehicles along Union Road. “I had to see it. What else are you going to do on a Monday night?”

Since its completion in 2004, the statue, which appeared to come out of a pond in front of the nondenominational megachurch, was known by multiple nicknames, including “Touchdown Jesus” because the arms and hands were raised upward. It also was known as “Big Butter Jesus” after comedian Heywood Banks referred to it as such and created a song about the statue, which he performed on radio’s popular “The Bob and Tom Show.”

The statue was constructed of wood and styrofoam over a steel framework that was anchored in concrete and covered with a fiberglass mat and resin exterior, according to the church. It was slated to undergo renovations this summer.

Also gathered along Union Road were Franklin twins and storm chasers Levi and Seth Walsh, who said they were out in the thunderstorm when they heard about the fire through a Facebook update.

“It sent goosebumps through my whole body because I am a believer,” said Levi Walsh, 29. “Of all the things that could have been struck, I just think that that would be protected. ... It’s something that’s not supposed to happen, Jesus burning,” he said. “I had to see it with my own eyes.”

“I can’t believe Jesus was struck,” said his brother, who noted the giant Hustler Hollywood sign for the adult store across the street was untouched. “It’s the last thing I expected to happen.”

Whether jostled by the incident, or ready to call out zingers, all agreed the statue is what makes that stretch of I-75 in front of the church special.

“It’s a landmark, so it’s going to make the drive different,” said Josh Bartram, 18, of Middletown.

Because the fire was sparked by lightning, Neu said there will be no further investigation.

Also lost in the fire was audio equipment stored in the attic that Neu said was to be used for a Fourth of July event at the church. No damage estimate will be available until 10 a.m. today, said Neu, who added that church leaders indicated to him they planned to replace and rebuild all that was lost in the fire.

Crews responded from Monroe, Middletown, Liberty Twp., Deerfield Twp. and Trenton, according to dispatchers.


King of Kings (Also known as "Touchdown Jesus" or "Big Butter Jesus"), is a 62-foot-tall sculpture of Jesus just outside of Cincinnati. Jesus appears to be rising from the waters behind the amphitheater at Monroe's Solid Rock Church.

Music by Heywood Banks, the version originally broadcast on the syndicated Bob & Tom radio show.