NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — Authorities are trying to figure out what sparked a massive fire that destroyed a historic church in Chelsea.
The fire that started at 7 p.m. Sunday at the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral of St. Sava on West 25th Street sent plumes of smoke billowing into the city’s skyline.
Nearly 200 firefighters battled the raging flames as the interior collapsed onto itself.
“Once it got going it was hard to put out,” FDNY Manhattan Borough Commander Roger Sakowich said. “This is a unique building. It’s four freestanding walls — they’re extremely thick, well built — and all the inside wood structure fell inside the building into the basement.”
Witnesses posted to social media documenting the devastating flames.
The fire was largely extinguished three hours later, but firefighters had to beat back small pockets of flames.
Five firefighters and one civilian suffered minor injuries.
The fire broke out on the same day Orthodox Christians around the world celebrated Easter. Pictures released by the church showed the pews filled during a service just hours before the flames ignited.
As CBS2’s Ali Bauman reported, what were once stained glass windows are now shards, wooden pews have turned to ash.
“My first day, when I came to this church I was amazed at how beautiful it is in the middle, the center of Manhattan, and I remember before my first job interview I went to this church and prayed,” Nada Vasilijvic said.
Nada has made a home in New York since moving from Serbia years ago. She had just been inside the church for Orthodox Easter services, and last night watched her second home go up in flames.
“I was sitting with my best friend at home, like this isn’t normal. I was just there this morning,” she said.
Father Djokan Majstorovic, the church’s priest, struggled to get to the fire scene blocked off by firefighters.
“I feel like I’m in a nightmare right now,” he said.
Alex Elic is a parishioner whose stepfather is also the church’s caretaker.
He said his stepfather went into the burning sanctuary, trying to do what he could to contain the growing flames, but was forced to retreat and wait for firefighters.
“I’m still in shock,” he said. “I don’t know what to say. It’s sad. It’s really sad.”
City Council Member Corey Johnson called for a full investigation into the cause of the fire.
“This is a huge loss for the community,” he said. “In addition to being a place of worship, this historic building was a New York City landmark, treasured by the people” living in the neighborhood.
Fire officials are looking into the possibility that candles may have been used during Sunday night’s services, CBS2’s Janelle Burrell reported.
The church was designed by architect Richard M. Upjohn and was built in the early 1850s. One of its earlier congregants was novelist Edith Wharton, who wrote “The Age of Innocence.” She was married in the church in 1885.
The Serbian Orthodox Church purchased the building from the Episcopal Diocese in New York in 1943. The building was designated a city landmark in 1968.
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