NEW LONDON — The central spire and roof of a two-hundred-year-old cathedral in the heart of the downtown suddenly collapsed into ruin today, and the two remaining steeples are slated for immediate demolition.
“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,” said New London Mayor Michael Passero. “Fortunately at this time we do not believe that there has been any loss of life associated with this incident.”
The Engaging Heaven Church at 66 Union St. collapsed at about 1:30 p.m. on Thursday. The cause is under investigation, according to New London Police Captain Matthew Galante.
The 8,000-square foot church was built in 1851, and a 6,000-square-foot addition to the rear was built in 1975.
“We’re expecting this building is a total loss,” Passero said at a 5 p.m. press conference.
At the time of the collapse, one individual who was in the building was escorted out by firefighters. Passero said that the individual confirmed that no one else was in the building.
As of 5 p.m., the site was being evaluated by engineers and personnel from Urban Search and Rescue to ascertain whether it was safe to search the rubble for signs of life, Passero said.
Emergency personnel from New London and local towns – Norwich, Waterford, Groton, Poquonock Bridge, Electric Boat and the Sub Base, among others – worked together to respond to the collapse. Also on site were officials from the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, and the state police.
“We expect to be here throughout the night,” Passero said.
The Manwaring building next door, which serves as dorms for Connecticut College students, had been evacuated, he said.
“However, engineers have deemed it to be structurally safe, so we’re thankful for that. [Students] have been temporarily housed in the Holiday Inn and we expect that they’ll be displaced at least through the weekend. We do not have any other structures that were affected,” Passero said.
A demolition contractor was on hand waiting for engineering confirmation that at least the two steeples that remain will have to be taken down immediately, as well as a determination on the rest of the building, he said.
State. Rep. Anthony Nolan (D-New London) told CT Examiner that the church has played a significant role in feeding the community.
“Between 70 and maybe a little more than 100 people come here to eat breakfast in the morning. It’s the best place for people to go if they don’t have a hot meal. And this church has been doing it for numerous years. So that’s going to be a critical thing that we’re going to need to try and close the gap on,” Nolan said. “This church is a very active church. They really are a church of actions when it comes to showing love to the people of the community.”
Lester Harris, of New London, told CT Examiner he witnessed the collapse. He was on his way to the Bravado barber shop and almost parked his car right in front of the church on State St., but at the last minute moved it to a space across the street.
“I was in the car on the phone, talking. And then all of a sudden I heard this thunderous sound, like a boom, like thunder. So I looked to my left, and I was like, what was that. And I just saw the church as a whole in a split second, it just collapsed. Everything down the middle just came down like a waterfall. It just came pouring down and some of the debris was on the ground. And if I had parked there, it would have definitely hit the car,” he said.
The city’s fire marshal’s office and building officials will work with the state fire marshal and state building officials to determine the cause of the collapse, partly using surveillance video that Passero said captures the collapse. Passero said the video would not be released immediately as it was part of the investigation.
The site is considered to be contaminated until proven otherwise, Passero said, and DEEP has set up monitoring stations around the site. “They have not detected any contamination at this point,” he said.
He 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 ways. The building was empty. There was no services, the building fell in upon itself. It did not fall, for instance, onto State Street onto the dormitory to the west or onto City Hall to the east. We’re assuming that we can confirm that there’s been no loss of life,” he said. “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.”
He said the city will help the congregation to relocate, but the building’s presence in the New London skyline was irreplaceable.
“But the city is resilient. Don’t forget, Benedict Arnold burned us to the ground 300 years ago, and we survived that and we’ve survived much since. And we will rebound from this loss,” he said.