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From the archives: A 'worst nightmare' comes true

Thursday, August 29, 2013 - 12:01 am

This story was originally published Sept. 3, 1993.

Ignoring the driving rain that pelted his face, the Rev. Thomas O'Connor raised his eyes toward the spires of St. Mary's Catholic Church and sighed.

''My worst nightmare . . .," the priest said yesterday afternoon as he watched the first of the flames that would eventually gut the downtown landmark break through the roof, ". . . is coming true."

That was about 3:30 p.m., and within 20 minutes, O'Connor's nightmare came true. The fire raced through the structure at 430 E. Jefferson and left it looking like something from the bombed-out ruins of a World War II European city.

Thick, gray smoke rolling from the spires on the front, or west side, of the church confronted the first firefighters who arrived from Station No. 1 only three blocks away.

Once inside, firefighters found they could not reach the blaze, which apparently started above a wooden choir loft.

''It was 30 feet above our heads," one firefighter said. "In most buildings, we just poke a hole in the ceiling and get water on it. We couldn't get anywhere close to this one."

Flames spread quickly through the wooden skeleton of the church, erupting at first from the roof on the west side, then breaking through the roof to engulf a small spire at the opposite end. About 10 minutes later, the entire roof collapsed. At 3:50 p.m., the flames devoured the tallest of the building's three spires on the west end and it fell with a roar into what had been the church's interior.

Structural engineers who were hired by the diocese said today they recommend a feasibility study be done to determine if the building is worth saving, which is expected to run into the millions of dollars.

The engineers are recommending immediate action to take down with a crane what's remaining of the main steeple for safety reasons .

They also recommend two areas of brick walls on the north and south sides of the buildings be removed as well.

If a decision is made to restore the building, the walls that are still standing must be braced immediately both inside and out.

The fire was reported at 2:22 p.m., after church maintenance man Neal Davis smelled smoke and went to the basement to check the furnace. When Davis came back upstairs, he said, he found the area of the choir loft ablaze.

Church workers evacuated people from the basement soup kitchen.

Two lanes of Jefferson remained closed in the area while traffic was allowed to inch past the church. Lafayette Street remained closed from Lewis Street north, with traffic diverted onto Clay and Barr streets.

The flames were finally brought under control at 5:43 p.m., though one pumper was still shooting water on hot spots this morning.

No cause was immediately determined, but Assistant Fire Chief Ron Hamm said a man who was jogging outside the church during a heavy thunderstorm saw a bolt of lightning strike the roof moments before the fire was discovered. After the flames died down, fire inspectors, along with three agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, sifted through the ruins to try locating the fire's source.

The ATF agents, Fire Chief Steve Hinton said, were called in routinely as part of a task force that investigates major fires and not because of any suspicion over the fire's origin.

While ATF and arson investigators were still there this morning, Hinton said there still is nothing to suspect the fire was caused by anything other than lightning.

Hundreds of onlookers jammed nearby streets and sidewalks to watch as about 50 firefighters used 10 pieces of equipment to fight the fire. As three 100-foot ladder trucks, including one from St. Joseph Township, poured thousands of gallons of water onto the flames from high-pressure deluge nozzles, gasps of "oh my God" were heard throughout the crowd.

Ironically, one modern-day addition to the church may have been responsible for hampering progress in fighting the fire. Concerned about vandalism, church officials had had panes of Lexan installed over the stained glass windows. Until the strong plastic panes eventually melted from the heat of the fire, the Lexan prevented firefighters from being able to pour streams of water through the windows .

City officials said the structural integrity of the building would be the next major concern.

Gary Baeten, director of the city's Neighborhood Code Enforcement Department, the agency that is responsible for razing unsafe structures, said the city wants to give church representatives time to recover any items they can .

''We're not anxious to knock it down," Baeten said. But he said the danger the ruins pose to people will determine if the comes down.

The first firefighters in the building were able to save some items, Hamm said, including artwork and statuary, altar cloths and candelabras. Vessels containing sacred hosts also were saved.

While the church was built with 24-inch-thick oak timbers and solid brick , what remained standing following the fire could be unstable and in danger of collapse at any moment, Hinton said.

''The chances of restoring older buildings like this that are involved in a major fire aren't that great."

What doomed St. Mary's

Firefighters who fought yesterday's blaze that gutted St. Mary's Catholic Church said they faced several difficulties they would not normally encounter. Those included:

*The distance that initially separated them from the fire. The blaze apparently started above the choir loft, some 20 or 30 feet above the firefighters' heads. That prevented them from reaching the flames immediately, giving the fire opportunity to spread throughout the wooden framework of the church.

*The presence of Lexan panels on the exterior of the structure's stained glass windows. Normally in a fire, window glass breaks and gives firefighters a chance to direct water onto the flames through the broken window. The strong plastic panes, however, did not initially break from the heat, and firefighters could not knock them down even with high-pressure streams of water. That meant water could not reach the flames through the windows until the Lexan panels finally melted.