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.

In addition to the loss of the historic building and organ, the fire destroyed HD video cameras, sound equipment, lights, a rented $100,000 Fazioli grand piano, harp, tympani and many other personal effects belonging to the performers.

"I'm sure it's more than $100,000," de Azevedo said of the piano. "The Fazioli, a new amazing piano sitting there, gone up in smoke. The harp, gone up in smoke. The timpani, gone up in smoke."

He later told concertgoers at the Alpine Tabernacle in American Fork that the organ was worth over $1 million.

A KBYU official told an associate the school lost $2 million worth of equipment just in one production truck that was parked at the tabernacle.

"Everyone is devastated," de Azevedo said. "I've had calls. We are going to perform. We are not going to … be defeated. We will perform."

Anotherperformance at the Alpine Tabernacle is scheduled for Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Sunday it will move to the Utah Valley University Events Center at 7:30 p.m. The performance is free, but donations will be accepted at the door to cover some of the personal losses of equipment. Donations may also be made through the Millennium Choral Society.

The Provo Tabernacle was regularly used for various events such as Sunday stake conference meetings for local LDS stakes — sometimes two on the same Sunday; BYU college convocation sessions for April and August graduations; community interfaith and patriotic services; and community concerts and performances.

"This building is used day in and day out," Curtis said.

Many of the surface streets surrounding the structure, including University Avenue, 100 West and 100 South, were shut down for hours Friday. That didn't stop dozens of spectators from showing up with cameras, taking pictures and exchanging memories of the beloved building.

"I almost want to cry. So many memories in there, and not a bad one," James Erickson said.

An emotional home video was posted on YouTube soon after the fire began by a woman who cried as she filmed the tragedy.

Other YouTube videos soon followed, as well as numerous comments on Facebook and Twitter as the incident went viral on social media pages.

The writer behind CJane's guide to Provo said she hopes it can be rebuilt, if not saved.

"I'm really hoping that there is some way to save some part of the history of the place," she said. "This morning, when I saw that it was up in flames, I felt a shock like I would if it was a family member. I think that losing the Provo Tabernacle is like losing a prominent member of our society. It's going to be felt far and wide. It's a huge loss."

"(I'm) devastated, heartbroken," said resident Phillip Kunz. "This building represents so many things to almost every resident of Provo and really the entire valley— graduations and ceremonies and important meetings and then just the symbolic nature of the building — its architecture and the historic way it came about. It's just tragic, heartbreaking."

The tabernacle is one of the oldest buildings in Utah. It was built in 1883 and took 15 years to complete for a cost of $100,000. It is listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.

The building has octagonal towers at each of its four corners. Originally it featured a central tower 147 feet tall. The tabernacle was partly condemned 20 years after it was built because the roof was under such great stress from the clock tower. It was condemned again in 1949 for the same reason, forcing officials finally to remove the tower.

"Clearly there will be sentiment on all sides to try and make this building something it once was. I just hope that's even a possibility," Curtis said.

Contributing: Mary Richards, John Hollenhorst

e-mail: spenrod@desnews.com; aadams@desnews.com; preavy@desnews.com

Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam E-mail: xxx@desnews.com

Get The Deseret News Everywhere

Subscribe

Mobile

RSS