By Helen Miller
As the parishioners gathered at the historic Cathedral of Saint John the Divine on Palm Sunday, a fire broke out in one of the basement storage rooms of the massive cathedral on Amsterdam and 114th Street.
The fire started as the first service was finishing, around 10 a.m. One cathedral staffer commented they thought the incense was stronger than usual. As the smoke thickened, they soon realized it was much more than incense. Soon the smoke was scything through the catacombs to the cathedral’s Nave.
The fire was declared “all hands” and additional fire apparatuses were called to the scene. Firefighters said they located the blaze in a storage room on the north side of the Cathedral’s maze-like basement after navigating darkened, smoke-filled hallways.
The fire was declared under control after an hour. Amsterdam Avenue was clogged with fire engines, ladder trucks and ambulances. Firefighters said the storage room appeared to contain artwork. The cause of the fire was still under investigation as of Sunday and no injuries were reported.
The 11 o’clock service had to be moved to the Pulpit Green on the south side of the Cathedral. It was supposed to rain this Palm Sunday, but the sun was bright and the flowers were in bloom.
Some items in the cathedral were damaged. “At least one valuable icon, a 16th century chair and various other items were destroyed but the rest of the contents appear to have escaped any major damage, though evaluation continues,” a spokeswoman wrote to the Rag. The cathedral still plans to hold services for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter.
Fires have caused damage at the cathedral in the past. On December 19, 2001, just a week before Christmas Eve services, a five-alarm fire tore through the cathedral causing extensive damage. That fire started in a gift shop when the Cathedral was closed and spread until 6:30 am when flames and smoke could be seen from the outside. That fire damaged 17th Century tapestries and stained glass widows shattered from the heat. The repairs to the cathedral took several years.
Photos by Helen Miller.