Cathedral fire appears accidental: investigator

A fire which damaged the roof of Dunedin landmark St Paul's Cathedral appears to have been started by accident, a fire investigator says.

Fire and Emergency New Zealand investigator Scott Lanauze said based on his investigations and inspection so far, he believed the fire started accidentally.

"We are looking at an accidental classification."

He could not yet say what exactly may have caused the fire, though he had a couple of theories.

"I have some considerations still before I can confirm the cause."

He said the efforts of firefighters helped keep fire damage to a minimum.

'We'll just start rebuilding'

Dean of Dunedin's St Paul's Cathedral the Very Rev Dr Tony Curtis said the fire was not something he was expecting to wake up to this morning.

He said he arrived at the scene about 4.20am, but by that point the fire was "largely under control''.

"I'm hopeful from what I've seen inside the building that there's nothing structural, but we'll obviously wait for the assessors to come down and have a look.

"We were really concerned to protect the high altar and the organ, which is a really tremendous instrument which has been in 100 years this year.

Damage to the roof and ceiling of St Paul's Anglican Cathedral seen from inside. Photo: Emma Perry
Damage to the roof and ceiling of St Paul's Anglican Cathedral seen from inside. Photo: Emma Perry

''It's just going to be a large clean up job, we're going to have some work to do on that roof and we'll just start rebuilding from now.

''The priority for us will be to get the building operational, so that we can carry on with worship, so that we can carry on with our prayers for the people of the city and Otago and Southland.

"This building is a home for a lot of people and it's a home for the city, right in the heart of the Octagon, a lot of people are really concerned about it.''

He was installed as Dean in January, and the past weekend was the first time he had seen the building without scaffolding inside.

"It's a real shame now that we're going to have to do further work to the building, but I hope that people will have seen it in its glory at the weekend.

''We hope that people will rally around with us. We've got a job to do, but we'll get on and do it, and God will be with us.''

Crews were called to the fire about 3.30am. Photo: Stephen Jaquiery
Crews were called to the fire about 3.30am. Photo: Stephen Jaquiery

'Heartbreaking scenes'

Dunedin Mayor Aaron Hawkins said the fire had caused ‘‘heartbreaking scenes to wake up to’’.

His first thoughts were with the Dean and his congregation, but he said the building also occupied a significant place in the city’s built heritage in the Octagon.

‘‘After everything that we’ve been through over the last six months or so — and in particular our faith communities, who haven’t been able to gather together through the Covid-19 lockdown — this is another blow,’’ he said. ‘‘It compounds that and it’s hard to stomach, really.’’

He had contacted both the Dean and the Anglican Bishop of Dunedin the Rt Rev Dr Steven Benford and had extended an offer of a meeting ‘‘as soon as it is helpful’’ to talk about the role the city might play after the fire.

On offer could be the expertise of the Dunedin City Council staff, repair funding from the Dunedin Heritage Fund, or the role the city council could play in community fundraising should it be required.

‘‘Until we have a sense of the scale of the problem, it’s hard to know where that would lead.’’ 

'Outside looks worse than the inside'

Dunedin fire crews put out the fire which was in the roof of St Paul's Cathedral, in The Octagon. Firefighters were called to the Anglican church, in the central city, at 3.35am.

It is not known if the fire is suspicious at this stage, but a fire investigator is at the scene. Fire and Emergency southern region shift manager Andrew Norris said getting to the roof had been challenging.

Photo: Stephen Jaquiery
Photo: Stephen Jaquiery

"They've been working with the turntable ladder to access and extinguish the fire, supported by crews within the building," he said.

Mr Norris said there were no injuries.

A reporter at the scene said the inside smelled of smoke.

Senior station officer Rob Torrance, of Dunedin City Station, said the fire damage was confined to one section of the roof between the ceiling and the roof.

“The outside looks worse than the inside.”

Some fire dropped down to the altar below, but damage is not extensive.

He said the pinex material the ceiling was made out of absorbed water and expanded, and meant water damage occurred due to firefighters efforts.

The crypt is heavily flooded and is being swept up by fire crews.

Firefighters assess the damage to St Paul's Cathedral following a fire in the roof this morning. Photo: Craig Baxter
Firefighters assess the damage to St Paul's Cathedral following a fire in the roof this morning. Photo: Craig Baxter

The church had insurance.

The firefighter in charge at the scene Senior Station Officer Simon Smith, from the central Dunedin station, said crews were at the salvage and investigation stage by 8am.

At the height of the fire there were seven appliances and one aerial appliance at the scene.

The fire was not large, but being at the height it was added complexity, he said.

Fire crews would stay at the scene for a few hours

A spokeswoman for police said officers were also alerted to the fire about 3.30am, and began guarding the scene overnight.

The roads surrounding the church have reopened after several were closed while the fire was being fought.

Skylights in the roof of the cathedral's apse have been replaced over the past month.

Work started on the Oamaru stone-walled cathedral in 1915 after the diocese spent 10 years fundraising the £20,000 needed for construction to start.

In 1971, a modern chancel designed by Ted McCoy was added, built of concrete and sheathed inside and out with Oamaru stone to match the rest of the building.

Last year a celebration service was held at St Paul’s, marking 100 years since it was consecrated on February 12, 1919.

- Additional reporting ODT Online


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