Fire Destroys Steeple Of Church In VT; Man In Custody

11:37 AM, Oct 23, 2013   |    comments
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Burlington Free Press

BURLINGTON, VT-- Burlington Police have a man in custody in connection with a pre-dawn fire that severely damaged the 19th century steeple of the College Street Congregational Church in Burlington, Deputy Chief Bruce Bovat told the Burlington Free Press.

The person of interest, Alaiksandr Bychkou, 32, of South Burlington has been held on suspicion of unlawful trespass, and further law-enforcement procedures would likely be handled by the Vermont State Police Arson Unit, Bovat said.

The Burlington Free Press was first to report that an individual was taken into custody following the blaze.

Witnesses say flames erupted from the top of the steeple shortly before 6 a.m. and firefighters arrived on the scene shortly thereafter. Crews on tower trucks hosed the timber and slate structure for about an hour.

No sirens signaled their presence, just the sounds of high-pressure streams of water tearing slate from the tower.

A church custodian contacted police about 5:30 a.m., reporting signs that a door had been forced, and the possible presence of someone in the bell tower area, according to a police statement.

When officers arrived, they spotted smoke in the belltower, and soon thereafter found Bychkou in the building, the statement adds. Within moments of taking him into custody, the tower erupted in flames.

A charred landmark remains. The fate of the steeple, completed in 1866, is uncertain, according to church officials who gathered in an adjacent parking lot.

"It's a wooden structure," said Frank Willis, who chairs the church's building committee. "It'll have to come down -- down to the masonry."

Burlington Fire Chief Seth Lasker said that the church is not a total loss, and fire damage was largely contained to the steeple.

Roland Reynolds, a Burlington Free Press early-shift employee, said he saw a man taken into custody about 6 a.m., as firefighters were dousing the belltower. "As he was being led to the squad car, he asked the officers if they could turn him around so he could see the fire," Reynolds said.

Church member Bill Harwood identified the church custodian as David Brody. Harwood said motion-detectors in the building had also been activated an alarm about 6 a.m.

If an intruder set the fire, this would be the building's second such incident, Harwood said -- the first took place after a Christmas pageant in 1994.

An accidental fire would have been unlikely, Harwood said: "We were just certified this spring by the fire marshal. Everything had been re-wired; all new alarms installed. We did everything we could to make this church safe.

"This is my home church," Harward added. "I was baptized here."

Arrangements to clean up the water damage will have to wait until city and state building inspectors deem the structure safe, he said.

Jonathan Farrell, the self-described "steeple-keeper" for the church, gazed silently up at the pitted shell of a spire.

On better days, he would be winding his way up the tower's narrow, well-worn wooden steps to wind up the clock and bell.

Police had cordoned off a wide area around the church while firefighting efforts were underway. College Street between South Winooski Avenue and South Union Street remained closed to motor traffic at 9:30 a.m.

Burlington Electric Department announced that it had cut off power to some buildings in the area during the fire.

Ollie Northcott, an employee at FairPoint Communications on South Union Street, said he was alerted to the fire by his building's abrupt shift to emergency power. The Pomerleau Family YMCA, across College Street from the church, is closed due to the ongoing response and investigation.

Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger said the Burlington Police Department assisted fire officials in a quick response to the blaze.

"From everything I've heard so far, it was a very skilled and rapid response that saved the church from sustaining substantially more damage," said Weinberger. "But it's still a tragic event. It's a beautiful church and has been part of the Burlington skyline since the 1860s. They've got an active congregation that has invested heavily in the building just in recent years, and now they have another challenge, so it's a very unfortunate event."

Anyone who may have information is asked to contact the Burlington Police Department at 802-658-2704, the Vermont State Police Arson Tip Line at 1-800-32-ARSON (1-800-322-7766), or Crime Stoppers at 802-864-6666.

Contributing: Philip Tortora, Ryan Mercer and Adam Silverman, Free Press staff

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