Fire damages New York's century-old Cathedral of St. John the Divine
Tuesday, December 18th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6
NEW YORK (AP) _ A fierce fire damaged the century-old Cathedral of St. John the Divine on Tuesday, filling one of the largest churches in the world with smoke and threatening its rare 17th century tapestries just a week before Christmas.
The flames that broke out at the massive Gothic stone structure were confined to a gift shop, which was destroyed. But as much as 3 inches of water covered the floor of the nave, and Christmastime services _ including two performances of Handel's ``Messiah'' _ were left in doubt.
The cause of the fire was not immediately known.
The cathedral is the principal church of the Episcopal Diocese of New York.
As many as 200 firefighters battled the blaze. No injuries were reported.
``We were just crying all the way down here,'' said Margaret Hurwitz, whose son, Nicholas, 12, attends the Cathedral School, on the grounds of the cathedral. ``You know, after the World Trade towers, you want something to be secure. This is where we came that day.''
The extent of the damage was not immediately clear, but officials expressed the greatest concern for two of six Barberini tapestries that hung inside the nave. The textiles, part of a set of 12 made on the official papal looms, depict the life of Jesus Christ.
``This is a big part of my world, taking care of these tapestries,'' said a distraught Marlene Eidelhut, director of textile conservation.
The fire was reported about 7 a.m., an hour before the first Mass of the day, and was believed to have started in the gift shop, which lost its two-story-high wooden roof. Flames climbed high into the sky, and black smoke billowed from the cathedral.
The blaze was brought under control after about 2 1/2 hours, but the upper reaches of the cathedral's nave were full of heavy smoke.
None of the more than 150 stained-glass windows appeared to be damaged.
Two Masses are traditionally held on Christmas, each of which typically attracts as many as 5,000 people. Thousands of people visit the cathedral each day, and it holds 30 services a week.
``My suspicion is that once they get the smoke out of the cathedral, the most services possible will resume,'' said Jere Farrah, a spokesman for the cathedral. But he said it was too early to say how long that might take.
The building is in the Morningside Heights neighborhood on the edge of Harlem, a few blocks from Columbia University. The Encyclopedia of New York City describes it as the nation's largest cathedral. It is big enough to hold two football fields.
Farrah described the church's stone structure as ``indestructible.''
The first stone was laid in 1892, but construction has never been completed. When construction resumed in 1982 after a 41-year break, jobless local youths were trained in old-fashioned stonecutting methods to help finish the cathedral's towers.