A festive weekend in Canton was marred early Sunday morning by a fire that caused heavy damage to the Gunnision Chapel steeple on the St. Lawrence University campus. The fire broke out shortly after 5am, when fire crews from around the area were called in to fight the blaze.
No one was injured. The area was roped off, and students and parents visiting for SLU’s Family Weekend were directed to stay away from the chapel, which was built in 1926.
Early this afternoon, Canton assistant fire chief Brian McCluskey said embers were still dropping from the upper section of the steeple. Firefighters remained at the scene to make sure the fire didn’t rekindle. Responders were dumping out buckets of water from the fire hoses that helped extinguish the blaze. Parts of the chapel sustained water damage, including a ceiling that collapsed in the main foyer. The bells in the tower were not seriously damaged.
St. Lawrence County emergency services has launched an investigation. SLU chief facilities officer Dan Seaman says preliminary reports indicate an electrical short may have triggered the fire, but he said all potential causes are being considered.
Seaman says a structural engineer will inspect the steeple from a lift as early as today to determine whether the structure needs to be disassembled and removed. “We’re not really sure if it’s intact to the point where we can leave it where it is and repair,” said Seaman. “My guess is that we’ll be advised to bring a crane in and pluck it off the chapel and bring it down.” He said the steeple falling down is a concern, and the area will remain cordoned off.
SLU chaplain Kathleen Buckley and associate chaplain Shaun Whitehead were carrying a few things from their offices earlier today. Reverend Buckley says despite the tragedy of the fire, there is reason to feel thankful. “The bottom line is no one was hurt. And we realized that the bells are held by really significant structures, so we were able to tell the firefighters to watch out for that, because the bells weight tons and if anything had happened, if they’d fallen, that could have been tragic.”
Reverend Whitehead says there’s already been a huge outpouring of concern and offers to help from the local community and alumni across the globe. A morning interfaith service scheduled for Gunnison was promptly cancelled. “All services are cancelled until further notice. We are looking for maybe another location here on campus for this afternoon’s Gospel Service, but we’ve already been offered hospitality from the Unitarian Universalist Church here in Canton to have our 4 o’clock service there. People have already been calling asking for some sort of campus and community gathering just to give thanks that there was not one fatality or injury.”