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Demolition of a 214-Year-Old Church in Connecticut Followed a Sudden Steeple Collapse

Wed February 07, 2024 - Northeast Edition
CT Examiner & WVIT-TV

Emergency crews respond to the former First Congregational/Engaging Heaven church after the steeple of the old, historic church collapsed, Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024, in New London, Conn.
Peter Huoppi/The Day via AP
Emergency crews respond to the former First Congregational/Engaging Heaven church after the steeple of the old, historic church collapsed, Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024, in New London, Conn.

The central spire and roof of a 214-year-old cathedral in the heart of downtown New London, Conn., suddenly collapsed into ruin on the afternoon of Jan. 25, leading to a week-long demolition of the remaining structure.

So far, it is not yet clear what led to the collapse of the Engaging Heaven Church's steeple, located at 66 Union St. City officials worked to preserve as much evidence as possible to help determine the cause.

Luckily, the church, which was a historic building and landmark, collapsed without anyone being hurt.

"We've suffered a very serious setback here in downtown New London with the loss of one the oldest and certainly one of the most gorgeous religious structures in the city," Mayor Michael Passero told reporters shortly after the collapse.

Firefighters and a structural engineer used a ladder truck to inspect the church from above on Jan. 26, just before the demolition got under way.

City officials told WVIT-TV in West Hartford shortly after the collapse that most, if not all the church would need to be torn down, a task that would likely take several days.

In a Jan. 29 news conference, Passero said the main part of the sanctuary was still there following demolition work over the previous weekend, but depending on how well it came down, "we are going to try very hard to preserve the back section" of the building.

But after nearly a week of work, it was determined the entirety of the church needed to be razed, a task completed Feb. 1 by Manafort Brothers Inc., from Plainville, Conn., after having been quickly dispatched to the scene the day after the accident.

Manafort transported a crane to the site upon its arrival on the scene and quickly tore a gaping hole where the building's front had once stood.

What will happen with the church's hundreds of granite blocks that fell will be decided at a later date, WVIT-TV noted.

Manafort spent Feb. 1 demobilizing its crew and equipment before it turned over the site the next day.

The property also is considered to be contaminated until proven otherwise, explained Passero, and the Connecticut Department of Energy & Environmental Protection (DEEP) has set up monitoring stations around the church property.

"They have not detected any contamination at this point," he told CT Examiner while the demolition was ongoing.

When the work was finished, though, he explained, "The site will be secured and off limits for the foreseeable future while a remediation plan is formulated."

The New London fire marshal's office and building officials are working with their colleagues at the state level to determine the cause of the collapse, in part by examining surveillance video that Passero said captures the steeple's fall. He added that the video would not be released immediately as it is part of the investigation.

During a news conference the day after the incident, New London Fire Marshal Vernon Saau said the last inspection done at the church was in January 2019. At that time, three minor violations turned up — all of which were immediately fixed.

Normally, inspections are supposed to be conducted every two years, but the pandemic "threw a wrinkle in the process," according to Passero.

He added that there are a number of structures across New London that he hopes to see inspected in the wake of the collapse.

Church's Steeple ‘Came Down Like a Waterfall'

The 8,000-sq.-ft. church was originally built in 1810, and a 6,000-sq.-ft. addition to the rear was constructed in 1975, according to property records obtained by WVIT-TV.

"The skyline in the city has permanently changed and we lost a significant piece of history," Passero told the TV station.

Engaging Heaven Church officials told reporters that one woman was inside when the steeple collapsed but noted that she was able to get out safely.

The structure also sits next to New London City Hall and the Manwaring Building, where many Connecticut College students live — 50 of whom were evacuated and relocated to the New London Holiday Inn to wait out Manafort's demolition.

Lester Harris, a New London resident, told CT Examiner he witnessed the collapse as he was driving downtown. He almost parked his car right in front of the church on State Street, but at the last minute decided on a space across the street.

"I was in the car talking on the phone, [when] all of a sudden, I heard this thunderous sound, like a boom, like thunder," Harris recalled. "When I looked to my left, the church was whole and in that split second, the [entire] middle part of the church just collapsed. Everything down the middle just came down like a waterfall. If I had parked there, some of the debris would have definitely hit the car."

Passero reflected on how fortunate it was that the collapse did not occur during a church service, nor was there damage to surrounding buildings.

"You can count the luck involved in this a million [different] ways," he noted. "The building was empty, there were no services, and the building fell in upon itself. It did not fall onto State Street, onto the dormitory to the west, or onto City Hall to the east. There's been no loss of life. The city was extremely fortunate in the manner of the collapse; it could have been a much bigger disaster for us.

"However, we did lose a cherished historic structure."

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