Provo firefighters still fighting tabernacle fire

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PROVO -- Crews were finally able to make it inside the Provo Tabernacle Saturday afternoon after a fire gutted the historical building.

More than 24 hours after it started, parts of the Provo Tabernacle were still burning.

As of 10:30 a.m., smoke could be seen coming from where the organ used to stand. Two long ladders from fire trucks were extended over the tabernacle to continuously dump water into the building.

Nothing has so much emotional contact as this with literally everyone in Utah County. This is an icon.

–Provo Fire Battalion Chief Tom Augustus

Provo Fire Battalion Chief Tom Augustus said firefighters had to hold off entering the building until the afternoon because of unsafe conditions.

"Structural engineers looked at the building this morning, and we're going to begin our investigation into what may have started the fire in the next couple of hours," Augustus said.

Rain and snow falling in the area haven't helped too much in putting out the fire.

"Actually, when it started to snow, it warmed up a little bit, so that helped us," said Augustus. "But as far as moisture, no. We're putting so many gallons a minute on there, the rain and snow didn't matter at all."

Public gathers to honor tabernacle

The wet conditions also haven't stopped people from visiting the site to take pictures. The block surrounding the Provo Tabernacle remains closed.

As crews worked inside, many people gathered outside the building to remember it in its glory.

Barry Rishton is an organist who played and even tuned the organ at the Provo Tabernacle more times than he can remember.

It's just so sad this historic site is gone. The pioneers worked so hard to build it. I'm not sure they should rebuild it because it will never be the same, but I don't know. Maybe they can make some type of memorial or something.

–Jenny Harston

"I remember it very vividly," he said. "The sound was beautiful."

But now, after the fire, memories are all he has left.

"It was a really great sound, so I would always sneak down there and play it every time I was in the city," Rishton said. "It was a great instrument."

Now, that instrument, like almost everything else inside the building, is gone.

"Nothing has so much emotional contact as this with literally everyone in Utah County," said Augustus. "This is an icon. Most people here have either had their high school graduation here, or their college graduation, or just attended a church meeting or a concert here."

Provo Mayor John Curtis said viewing the interior of the building was emotional. "It looked like World War II," he said. "It's just heartbreaking. It's as if the building had a soul and a heart beat. You are mourning the loss of a loved one."

Firefighters deal with putting out fires all the time. But when this building started burning and continued to burn, the fire meant a bit more to them.

"Because of the historic nature of it, we have taken every precaution we could to make sure we did everything right on it," Augustus said.

The exterior walls are still standing -- as are the towers. But now it's just an empty shell of what it once was. Even still, many people like Jenny Harston wanted pictures of the building. She even brought her young daughters to see it, just in case.

"It's just so sad this historic site is gone," she said. "The pioneers worked so hard to build it. I'm not sure they should rebuild it because it will never be the same, but I don't know. Maybe they can make some type of memorial or something."

Portrait of Christ survives

Meanwhile, a portrait which was hanging inside of the east entrance of the tabernacle is lifting many discouraged spirits.

Friday, it appeared the portrait of Christ would be lost in the flames. But firefighters discovered Saturday that the portrait had indeed survived.

The portrait was burned by the fire, except in the area around the image of Christ. Those who have seen it are calling it a small miracle and are finding hope in the tragic loss of the tabernacle.

City officials say firefighters were able to safely recover the portrait. It has been turned over to the LDS Church.

Investigation to take weeks

Fire Marshal Lynn Schofield said the investigation into the cause of the fire could involve weeks of sifting through debris. He said damage costs would easily surpass $1 million.

Millions of dollars in electronic equipment also went up in flames. Much of that camera and lighting equipment belonging to BYU and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was at the building to produce and record a music production that was scheduled for Friday and Saturday night.

Called an historic treasure, pioneers constructed the Provo Tabernacle from 1883 to 1898. The cost was $100,000.

There was no immediate word on what may have started the blaze. The official website for the LDS Church says the fire was believed to have started on the second floor.

A memorial for the building will be held at Utah Valley University Sunday night following a concert to benefit the tabernacle.

Crews will have to tear down some of the tabernacle's walls, but they plan on shoring up some of the others this coming week.

The future of the building has not yet been decided.

"This is just really sad," said Harston. "It'll never be the same and I'm going to miss it."

Story compiled with contributions from Alex Cabrero and Sam Penrod.


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