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Fires Ravages Historic NY Church - 2001-12-19

Firefighters in New York have brought under control a blaze that raged through the world's largest Gothic-style church, the Episcopal Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. Irreplaceable tapestries were among the interior objects damaged by smoke.

Fire officials say the fire may have been burning all night. At one point, flames rose three stories high and smoke filled the enormous church. It took 200 firefighters from 48 units to bring the blaze under control. No one was injured.

New York City Fire Commissioner Thomas von Essen says it appears the fire broke out in the gift shop. He says most of the damage was limited to the exterior of the church. "The stone in some places in this building is four feet thick. So it is not going to come down. But you could lose a roof. You could lose all the things that are in there," he says. "There are so many different chapels and altars in there. There is all the pews, seats - wood everywhere. So that is all very combustible."

Construction on St. John's began in 1892, but has never been completed. The Cathedral, which includes many chapels, is the largest church in the United States.

The fire could not have come at a worst time for the many New York Episcopalians and visitors who attend services during the Christmas season. Reverend Jere Farrah works at St. John the Divine. "Liturgically, we do 30 services a week on an average basis. When you add in the holiday services and special events, it is tens of thousands of people a week going in and out of the cathedral between visitors, audiences, congregations," says Reverend Farrah. "So it is our single busiest time of year, there is no question."

Cathedral officials fear smoke may have damaged the many valuable items contained in the church including a large organ, stained-glass windows and priceless tapestries.