Smart thinking contains fire in Ascension church

? Total cost is estimated at $400-500,000; smoke damage cancels dedication of new organ until the pipes can be cleaned.

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Cool thinking by a church volunteer in the face of heat and smoke quite possibly avoided greater damage after a fire was discovered early Jan. 6 in a small room off of the sanctuary in Ascension Church, 815 S. East Ave.

Upon opening the church's front door just after 6 a.m. last Thursday, a volunteer smelled smoke immediately. He turned on the lights and observed a gray haze throughout the church and began searching for the source of the smoke. He determined it was in the Usher's room when he saw smoke puffing from under the door. The volunteer retrieved a fire extinguisher. However, when he found the door to be hot to the touch, he called the fire department instead of attempting to extinguish the blaze himself. Fire personnel from the fire station a block south on East Avenue  arrived quickly and put out the blaze with two fire extinguishers.

The roughly 5 x 12 foot room, which was used to store various pamphlets, booklets and choir books, suffered heat and smoke damage. Its contents were destroyed in the blaze, which remains something of a mystery.

"We didn't come up with a definite cause," said Oak Park Battalion Chief Kevin Wiley on Tuesday.

Last Friday Wiley's department turned the investigation over to Oak Park police. Deputy Police Chief Robert Scianna said Tuesday that police investigators were given a list of people who were in and around the Usher's room last Wednesday, and have interviewed all of them, but to no avail.

"None of the interviews shed any light on what happened," said Scianna. Arson, though, is not likely a cause, he said.

"It's not an arson, anymore than a death investigation is a homicide," said Scianna of his department's investigation.

"They know it's not electrical in origin," said Ascension Business Manager Tom Gull on Monday. "And there were no accelerants stored in the room."

While actual fire damage was limited, smoke apparently did considerable damage to the church and its new pipe organ. In breaking the news to church faithful at Sunday mass, Rev. Larry McNally said that repairing smoke damage would cost between $400,000 and $500,000 to repair. Gull said that he and other Ascension officials will be meeting archdioceses officials and representatives of the diocese's insurance company Wednesday to determine what action will be taken and what expenses will be covered.

Oak Park Fire Chief William Bell said Friday that that church volunteer handled the situation perfectly by leaving the door closed and calling for firefighters.

"That was the proper thing to do," said Bell, who noted that the fire, which he described as a "slow, smoldering" fire, had basically burned itself out overnight from a lack of oxygen.

"Had he opened the door, he would have given it more oxygen," said Bell. "(Then) by the time we got there three or four minutes later, it would have been burning again."

Though fire damage was limited to the storage space, smoke had permeated most of the building. Some of that smoke damage had already been dealt with by Thursday, Gull said. A restoration company ran ventilation equipment in the church all day Thursday to allow a funeral to be held on Friday. The machines ran throughout much of the day Saturday to remove more of the smoke smell in time for weekend masses. In addition, all church pews have been washed down four times to remove smoke grime. Still, there is more to be done.

"The walls will also have to be washed," said Gull. In addition, the church's new pipe organ, which was installed just two months ago, and was scheduled to be dedicated this Friday, must be carefully inspected and cleaned.

"All the pipes have to be wiped down," said Gull. "Some of the smaller and more sensitive pipes will have to go back to the factory."

Gull said that it wasn't currently possible to estimate when the organ dedication could be rescheduled, saying it could be anywhere from two weeks to two months.


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