PROVO — A lighting technician who mistakenly set a 300-watt light fixture on a wooden speaker box in the attic caused the fire that destroyed the Provo Tabernacle last December, according a report released Thursday.
The 135-page Provo Fire Department report concluded that a series of human errors contributed to the devastating blaze, including failure to recognize an unsafe lighting condition and a lack of urgency to report signs of a fire.
A task force of state and city investigators spent about 3 ½ months determining how the iconic structure built by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints more than a century ago burned down.
The blaze caused an estimated $15 million in damage.
Provo Fire Marshal Lynn Schofield said several missteps were made leading up to and through the discovery of the fire and the report does not "sugarcoat" them. "We didn't spare anybody," he said. "It's a finding of fact."
BYU Broadcasting hired Clearfield-based Trax AV to set up lights and sound for the taping of a Christmas production two days before the Dec. 17 fire. A lighting technician removed two recessed incandescent ceiling lights to suspend a truss holding temporary stage lights. He set one ceiling light on a wooden speaker box in the attic without removing the bulb, according to the report.
That light came on with the rest of the house lights at 7 p.m. when about 200 singers, musicians and a BYU film crew assembled to rehearse composer Lex de Azevedo's "Gloria" the night before the fire.
"They get very hot very quickly," said Schofield, estimating the light left in the attic reached 600 degrees in 30 minutes. The speaker box, he said, was on fire by about 9:30 p.m., while the performers were still in the building. The left about 11 p.m.
The report deemed the fire "unintentional." Schofield said the lighting technician, Jeremy Ostler, simply made a mistake.
"There's no criminal act here. There's no criminal liability," Schofield said.
The LDS Church, though, could pursue civil action. "That would be up to them and their insurance company," he said.
Ostler, who owns Trax AV, said in an email that he read the report Thursday afternoon.
"I don't have much to say other than we deny the allegations that we were responsible for the fire. Many allegations against us are not true. However, because this is in litigation we cannot talk specifics at this time on the advice of our attorney," he wrote.
A search of state and federal court files did not show any current lawsuits.
Church officials have not yet decided whether to rebuild the tabernacle.
"The Provo Tabernacle was a meaningful part of church history and the Provo community. The recent fire is a tragedy for all who loved the building and its link to our pioneer past. Church leaders continue to evaluate and explore options for the building and we will make those plans known as soon as they are available," church spokesman Scott Trotter said Thursday.
Flames were discovered tearing through the historic edifice in the early morning hours of Dec. 17. Emergency dispatchers were called at 2:43 a.m. with a report of fire on the stage. A fire truck returning from an alarm in another part of the city arrived a minute later.
But signs of a fire were overlooked for at least five hours before then, according to the report.
The intense fire ravaged the building and smoldered for several days afterward. Crews pumped more than a million gallons of water on the inferno.
Though the report called the cause unintentional, it cited human errors as contributing factors, including failure to see and correct an unsafe condition with the light that was removed.
"The lighting technicians did not recognize, or chose to ignore the hazard associated with an energized 300-watt lamp being placed onto a wood surface. The packaging for the lamp used in the fixture of origin, a Sylvania model 300BR40/FL clearly states: 'Do not allow paper or other flammable or heat sensitive materials within 12 inches of the glass bulb during operation,'" according to the report.
Several individuals had concerns about whether the lamps were removed from the light fixtures. "None of these individuals spoke with, or questioned, the lighting technician, nor did they go to the attic and ensure that the lamps had been removed."
Human error also contributed to the fire not being reported in a timely manner, the report states.
A camera operator told investigators he smelled smoke as early as 9:30 p.m., but he and another camera operator attributed it to the hot lights.
At 1 a.m., a courier on his delivery route saw what he described as "fog" at the east end of the building, but did not smell smoke or alert anyone. About 10 minutes later, off-duty Provo police officer Austin Williams — hired as a security guard for the building — heard an alarm that he took to be a burglar alarm. When he reached the alarm control panel in the tabernacle, he did not recognize it as a fire alarm control panel, the report said.
"He did not see or follow the first instruction (on the panel): 'What to Do: Evacuate the building and notify the fire department,'" according to the report.
The fire alarm system was also having problems, failing an inspection and testing on Dec. 2, 2010, the report notes. The most frequent locations of false alarms reported were in the northwest turret and the attic.
"It is the conclusion of the investigators, that building coordinators developed apathy to the fire alarm system, due to the frequent false alarms that contributed to an inappropriate response on the morning of the fire," the report states.
At 2:39 a.m., Brian Jensen, a security guard at neighboring Nu Skin, saw what he believed to be steam or smoke coming from the tabernacle roof. He alerted Williams who re-entered the building and upon seeing flames on the stage, called fire dispatchers, the report states.
Other factors that played a role were the lack of adequate fire detection and alarm systems and an automatic sprinkler system.
Determining the cause proved to be one of the most arduous and comprehensive tasks fire investigators have ever undertaken in Utah. Schofield estimated officials put in 1,500 to 2,000 staff hours on the investigation, including igniting mock-ups of the wooden box with 300-watt lights.
Safety concerns, freezing temperatures and heavy snowfall hampered investigators' initial efforts to get into the gutted building. Construction crews had to stabilize the remaining walls before investigators went inside. Schofield described the ashen remains as a 25,000-piece jigsaw puzzle.
In addition to digging through mounds of charred rubble, investigators interviewed people who were in and around the tabernacle before the blaze was discovered.
The fire destroyed the tabernacle's distinctive pipe organ, HD video cameras, sound equipment, lights, a rented $200,000 Fazioli grand piano, harp, tympani and personal effects belonging to the performers.
De Azevedo earlier estimated that the organ was worth more than $1 million. A BYU Broadcasting official estimated the school lost equipment valued at $2 million in a production truck parked outside the building.
The tabernacle is one of the oldest buildings in Utah. The LDS Church started construction in 1883 and took 15 years to complete it at 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 to remove the tower.