December 19, 2014

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UPDATED: Investigation continues into Lorain church fire

A member of the state fire marshal's office looks over a freezer removed from the basement of the destroyed First Evangelical Lutheran Church in Lorain. The pipes in the foreground, part of the classic pipe organ, are being salvaged for future use. BRUCE BISHOP/CHRONICLE

A member of the state fire marshal’s office looks over a freezer removed from the basement of the destroyed First Evangelical Lutheran Church in Lorain. The pipes in the foreground, part of the classic pipe organ, are being salvaged for future use. BRUCE BISHOP/CHRONICLE

LORAIN — Ninety years fell to the ground in a mix of bricks and burned pieces of wood last Thursday as the pastor and members of the First Evangelical Lutheran Church looked on.

Parts of the church’s walls and floor were torn down to enable Ohio Fire Marshal’s Office officials to investigate what caused the blaze.

So far, investigators have determined that someone broke into the church, though they cannot pinpoint when.

“It’s surreal,” Melissa Steele-Steeber, secretary for the church, said as she watched machinery rip through the building’s sanctuary. “It’s almost like watching a movie.”

The flames started about 6:30 a.m. Aug. 28 at the church at 603 Washington Ave. It took firefighters until 9:30 a.m. that day to control them.

Fire investigators stand inside the church Thursday as an excavator removes debris from the destroyed First Evangelical Lutheran Church building in Lorain.

Fire investigators stand inside the church Thursday as an excavator removes debris from the destroyed First Evangelical Lutheran Church building in Lorain.

The fire, which destroyed large parts of the sanctuary, including stained-glass windows and a historic pipe organ valued at $1 million, started in the south part of the church, possibly in the basement, said Lorain Fire Chief Tom Brown.

In the week following the fire, investigators could not get into the basement safely to start looking into the cause. They needed to break through the structure and tear down some outside walls with heavy machinery, and they received the permit to do so this week.

Thursday, with many members of the church looking on, parts of the building were torn down. Investigators went into the church’s basement, taking out a freezer and parts of the badly burned organ for examination.

The compressor and electrical connections were removed from the freezer and wrapped up to be taken from the scene Thursday afternoon.

Investigators are looking for any videos, audio or photos that people might have of the blaze to help in the investigation.

For community members and church officials, the teardown of their 90-year-old church was jarring.

“It adds insult to injury,” the Rev. Jimmy Madsen said, while noting that it was necessary for the investigation. “I’m still a little numb about (the fire).”

Still, church officials are determined not to let the fire destroy their church family.

On Wednesday, members of the Church Council held an emergency meeting to appoint Steve Cutnaw and Tom Hupman to act as liaisons between church officials and the congregation as they plan a strategy for the future of the church.

Though watching the teardown of the church is difficult, both men choose to look forward.

Brian Wentzel, director of music at First Evangelical Lutheran Church, loads the salvaged pipes from the church's beloved pipe organ into a truck. The hope is that the pipes will somehow be used in some fashion in the new church. Wentzel said that before today he doesn't think he had ever touched the fragile pipes.

Brian Wentzel, director of music at First Evangelical Lutheran Church, loads the salvaged pipes from the church’s beloved pipe organ into a truck. The hope is that the pipes will somehow be used in some fashion in the new church. Wentzel said that before today he doesn’t think he had ever touched the fragile pipes.

“It’s traumatic, obviously, but we’re Christians so we always know there’s a bright ending,” Hupman said.

So far, they have moved many of the programs held in the church — Alcoholics Anonymous and a monthly food pantry, for instance — to other locations and have spoken with the man who created the $1 million organ about building another.

“We remain focused on what our goals are,” Cutnaw said.

The consensus between church members and officials is that they will rebuild — most likely in the same place.

“This is our neighborhood. This is our identity,” Madsen said.

For Cutnaw, the teardown possibly is a symbol of a new beginning.

“This might be the church’s resurrection,” he said.

Contact Anna Merriman at 329-7245 or amerriman@chroniclet.com. Follow her on Twitter at @AnnaLMerriman.

Send tips

  • To send tips or footage of the fire to the Ohio State Fire Marshal’s Office, call the office at (800) 589-2728.