Provo Tabernacle burns in four-alarm fire

Published: Saturday, Dec. 18 2010 7:00 a.m. MST

PROVO — Crews were expected to mop up hot spots overnight from Friday's four-alarm fire that gutted the historic Provo Tabernacle.

"All of the roof has collapsed into the structure, and now it's just a process of putting out the burning debris and getting it safe for us to go and take a look at it," said Provo Fire Marshal Lynn Schofield.

Fire crews remained at the scene through Friday/Saturday night as flames and embers could still be seen inside the building.

Structural engineers and city and church officials will meet this morning to determine what to do next with the building. A task force including the state fire marshal also will be involved in the investigation.

"As we dig through the debris, there are certain indicators that will help show us where the fire was most intense and burned the longest, and we will work from there," Schofield said.

While there was no official estimate of the damage to the tabernacle, millions of dollars in electronic equipment also went up in flames. Much of that camera and lighting equipment belonging to BYU and the LDS Church was at the building to produce and record a music production that was scheduled for Friday night.

"We're all really devastated," said Provo Mayor John R. Curtis. "Everyone in Provo has significant memories of concerts, plays, church meetings. It's an extremely vital part of my community. It's really a fabric of the community."

Scott Trotter, a spokesman for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, called the fire "tragic."

"The building not only serves our members and the community, but is a reminder of the pioneering spirit that built Utah. The damage appears severe, and until we make a structural assessment, we won't know whether this historic treasure can be saved." The fire was reported at 2:43 a.m. after being spotted by a security guard. Fire crews initially tried to go inside the building at 100 S. University Ave. to battle the flames. But after they saw how much the fire had already spread, they pulled back and fought for hours in a defensive mode.

"It's an old building. It's heavy timber construction and so if it's been smoldering or burning for quite a while…We just don't know the integrity of the building and how safe it is inside. That's why they decided to go defensive once they got here," said Deputy Provo Fire Chief Gary Jolley.

The decision to keep firefighters outside of the building may have saved lives. With a loud echoing bang, the roof collapsed at about 6 a.m., creating a massive pile of burning rubble inside.

"That was just a horrible sound. It was like an explosion," said long-time Provo resident Carl Bacon, who was outside the building when the roof collapsed.

"This is unbelievable, such a tragic experience. So many meetings have been held here," Bacon said. "This is a marvelous historic site, a sacred place for us."

Flare-ups continued throughout the day as firefighters from all five of Provo's stations battled the blaze.

Most of the brick facade on the lower portion of the building remained standing, but fire officials were worried about its structural integrity and set up a "collapse zone" perimeter around the building, allowing no one to be inside it.

There was no immediate word on what may have started the blaze. The official website for the LDS Church says the fire was believed to have started on the second floor.

BYU crews were filming a rehearsal inside the tabernacle Thursday night. One witness said she smelled something like a hot glue gun. "We just thought, 'OK, maybe it's just TV crews and lights,'" she said.

"Gloria" — a scriptural account of Christ's birth set to music — draws crowds every Christmas, and composer Lex de Azevedo was offering it admission-free Friday and Saturday nights. The 200 singers, musicians and a film crew were there until 11 p.m. rehearsing.

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