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Sunday morning fire strikes steeple of Gunnison Memorial Chapel at St. Lawrence University


CANTON — Fire investigators are still determining the cause of a fire that broke out about 5 a.m. Sunday at Gunnison Memorial Chapel at St. Lawrence University.

Canton Fire Chief Robert M. Crowe said no one was injured. The steeple and the roof above the bells were affected.

The Canton Fire Department was assisted by the Potsdam, Gouverneur, Morley and Rensselaer Falls departments.

“We used the aerials to knock the fire down up in there because we couldn’t gain good access through the inside,” Mr. Crowe said. “We had a stubborn fire up in the steeple. It took us quite a while to finally put this thing out.”

Mr. Crowe said the six fire investigators believe the fire was caused by electrical wiring at the top of the bell tower.

Roxanne Cliff, assistant director of safety and security for the university, was making rounds just after 5 a.m. when she noticed smoke from the steeple and called the Fire Department, said Ryan P. Deuel, director of media relations for the university.

Mr. Deuel said Gouverneur and Potsdam firefighters were called because they have ladder trucks with a longer reach.

“The height was a challenge,” said Keith J. Zimmerman, interim emergencies services director for St. Lawrence County. “It was a dance with aerial equipment.”

Mr. Crowe said that despite the stubbornness of the fire, the crews all worked together and did a good job of putting it out.

Mr. Deuel said the steeple may have to be taken down for safety reasons.

“That’s copper, metal sheets on the steeple, so they feel that the best thing to do at this time is to take it down to make sure we don’t have anything falling off the building,” he said. “We’re in the process of looking for a big enough crane now.”

Mr. Deuel said the university is working with engineers from Beardsley Design Associates to investigate the structural damage to the steeple and building and to determine whether the steeple has to be taken down.

The Rev. Kathleen Buckley, Canton, has been the university’s chaplain since 2001. She said that although she still wants to know the degree of damage to the chapel, she’s glad no one was hurt.

She also said she was glad the bells weren’t damaged, since there are only a few schools that actually have real bells that play every day.

“It’s just very, very sad, because this is the centerpiece of campus, and it has been for decades,” she said Sunday. “At 10 this morning, we were supposed to be having an interfaith service, and we had to cancel that.”

The Rev. Ms. Buckley said she had been receiving emails and texts from students and campus clubs offering support.

“There’s just a real outpour of care and support from the student body, which is really heartening and special,” she said.

Sociology student and SLU senior Trish A. Johnston said she received an NY-Alert text from the school about 6:40 a.m. Sunday informing her of the fire.

“Usually, they don’t send out an alert unless it’s something serious like this,” she said.

Miss Johnston said her parents were in town from Wilmington, Del., for Family Weekend at the university. They had attended a service at the chapel Saturday night and were planning to attend the interfaith service Sunday morning.

Mr. Deuel said that although the few services that were scheduled in the chapel have been canceled, the fire should not affect classes today.

“We’re just very happy that the rest of the chapel was not, from what we can tell, damaged by fire,” he said. “Being Family Weekend, that’s obviously a disappointment, but it’s good to know that the building itself seems to be OK.”

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