Provo Tabernacle fire creates a complicated jigsaw puzzle

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 29 2010 10:45 a.m. MST

Sun shines through outside walls of the remains of the Provo LDS Tabernacle Tuesday.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

PROVO — The charred black wreckage of the historic Provo Tabernacle, completed in 1898, was on full display as Provo's fire marshal led news reporters and photographers on the first tour of the building, as seen from the outside through broken-out windows.

"We still are in the very early stages of our investigation," said Fire Marshal Lynn Schofield.

Investigators are trying to piece together just what caused the blaze, but they can't do that effectively until they can safely work inside the building. And they can't do that until the red brick exterior walls are stabilized with steel supports.

"It really appears the investigation is going really slowly, but the reality is we've been 10, 12, 14 hours a day interviewing people, reviewing building plans, watching video tapes," Schofield said. Actually, the investigation is progressing very nicely … we've just got to get inside."

Crews continue the daunting task of stabilizing the building, cutting away with chainsaws the few remaining areas of the roof which did not collapse when the building was gutted by fire on Dec. 17.

"This is a great big jigsaw puzzle: 25,000 pieces," Schofield said. "What we're trying to do right now is take all of those 25,000 pieces, whether it's physical evidence or witness statements or a three second clip off of a video tape, and put those pieces of the puzzle together."

According to Schofield, the investigation is zeroing in on three days: the day before, the day of and the day after the fire. The devastation is so thorough it's even hard to see signs of the once-proud pipe organ.

"We've seen some of the pipes and stuff through the windows," said Gary Jolley, deputy chief for the Provo Fire Department. "The heat took its toll on it. Until we can actually get in there and physically see it and touch it, we're not going to know what's happened to it."

Firefighters say at times they were putting as many as 4,000 gallons of water per minute on the fire; that adds up to more than 1 million gallons, according to city officials.

Jolley said it's potentially dangerous to send investigators in. "You need to have some safety officer or some safety person to make sure they're looking for things investigators aren't looking for, to make sure that something doesn't happen to them," he said.

Crews sorted through the debris, saving bricks, molding, whatever can be salvaged. There's a lot of heavy lifting, though for workers it's a labor of love.

"Yeah, it feels kind of cool to be part of it," said Dylan Curtis, a member of the fire cleanup crew.

Every item from the burned-out interior will be documented, photographed and cataloged, its location marked using a GPS unit, and then moved to a huge plastic sheet to the north of the building. There, fire investigators and historic preservation teams will be able to sort through the debris for clues to a cause and to potential future restoration.

The fire marshal says a decision has not yet been made about whether the building can or will be restored.

It may take several weeks until engineers have a good chance to fully assess the situation.

The state, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Provo Fire Department have formed a task force to handle the aftermath of the blaze.

"We anticipate that it will be several weeks before we are able to determine next steps regarding the Provo Tabernacle," said Scott Trotter, spokesman for the LDS Church, which owns the building.

Meantime, another complicating factor is the weather. A storm made fighting the blaze difficult. Now another storm is expected this week, which will only make efforts to stabilize the building and investigate a cause that much harder.

Called a historic treasure, pioneers constructed the Provo Tabernacle from 1883 to 1898, at a cost of $100,000. It featured a Gothic-style steep roof and corner turrets. Artisans put fine craftsmanship into the beautiful stained glass windows and the deep, richly-colored woodwork, which included the sego lily.

e-mail: jdaley@desnews.com; mgiauque@desnews.com

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