Fire breaks out at St. John the Divine, largest church in U.S.

Tuesday, December 18, 2001

Associated Press WriterNEW YORK (AP) -- Fire broke out Tuesday morning at the historic Cathedral of St. John the Divine, with black smoke billowing 40 feet high from the Episcopal church that has been under construction for more than a century.

Part of the roof appeared to have caved in but no injuries were reported. The cause of the fire, seven days before Christmas, was not yet known.

Scores of firefighters were called to the scene at about 7 a.m., about an hour before the first Mass of the day at what is believed to be the nation's largest church, as smoke poured from a gift shop in the rear of the church and scores of onlookers stood by.

"We were just crying all the way down here," said Margaret Hurwitz, whose son, Nicholas, 12, goes to the nearby Cathedral School.

Hurwitz and her son went to find out whether it would be open; other children were seen leaving the area, crying and carrying book bags.

"You know, after the World Trade towers, you want something to be secure," said Hurwitz. "This is where we came that day."

There was no word on the extent of the damage.

Mechanic Juan Cruz, who saw the fire on his way to work at Columbia University, said: "There were clouds of black smoke 40 feet high. The winds were blowing it all over the place."

The cathedral is on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the Morningside Heights neighborhood. The Encyclopedia of New York City lists the church as the largest in the United States.

The first stone was laid in 1892, but construction has never been completed, and work continues to this day. When construction resumed in 1982 after a 41-year break, jobless local youths were trained in old-fashioned stonecutting methods.

Cathedral organist Dorothy Papadakos said the organ was the city's fourth largest and dates to 1910.

"We were going to do 'The Messiah' in two days," she said, "but I don't think it's going to happen."

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