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St. Lawrence looks to clean up, rebuild after steeple collapse


CANTON — After the collapse of the fire-damaged steeple of St. Lawrence University’s Gunnison Memorial Chapel, the college has begun to secure the site, cope with the destruction and plan the rebuilding of the Canton landmark.

The steeple’s collapse came just over 24 hours after Sunday morning’s fire, which investigators said was caused by an electrical malfunction.

A wedding scheduled for this weekend has been relocated to a church in Potsdam, just one of many events that will have to find a new location after the blaze. The chapel has been fenced off to prevent danger to any onlookers, and officials are still waiting to see just how bad the damage is to the 87-year-old building.

The steeple’s collapse was predicted by engineers and architects from Beardsley Design Associates, Auburn, who were on the campus to help assess and mitigate the damage caused by Sunday morning’s fire. The steeple fell without incident, and there were no injuries.

The college planned to get a crane Monday to remove the rest of the steeple, but high winds delayed those efforts.

The fire started about 5 a.m. Sunday, during the college’s Family Weekend. Fire investigators believe it was caused by an electrical mishap.

“We have basically ruled out all other possibilities at this time,” St. Lawrence County Fire Investigator W. Joseph Lacks said.

According to Mr. Lacks, the fire started in the bell tower and was quickly swept up by air currents toward the steeple.

“The fire path basically got sucked right up into the bell tower,” he said.

Investigators also looked into whether fireworks launched nearby Saturday night could have started the blaze, but determined that the celebration played no part in Sunday morning’s fire. They are expected to finish their report soon.

Meanwhile, college officials continue to plan how to proceed after Sunday’s destruction.

“Right now we’re trying to keep the area safe, and we’re trying to get the steeple off the top of the building and clean up the inside of the chapel itself,” college spokesman Ryan P. Deuel said. “We still have some cleanup to do before we know exactly what kind of repair work we’re looking at.”

The inside of the chapel suffered water damage after the blaze.

College facilities personnel will attempt to use a bucket lift Monday to remove the remainder of the debris, rather than using a crane.

Once the damaged portion has been removed, workers will construct a temporary roof to prevent further damage to the inside of the chapel.

When the immediate risks are removed, the college will start to look toward reconstruction.

“Our goal is to restore the building to its original state,” Mr. Deuel said.

First the school will have to cut through plenty of red tape. A building inspector will have to look at the extent of the damage, as will an agent from Traveler’s Insurance.

“It’s going to be a top priority for the campus,” Mr. Deuel said.

Events and services will be relocated until the damage is repaired. The chapel’s bells were mostly undamaged, but with no tower in which to ring them, the college will use an electronic recording to keep up with tradition.

The chapel first opened in 1926.

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