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    Sunday, April 14, 2024

    Historic church collapses in New London

    Emergency crews respond to the former First Congregational Church in downtown New London, as seen from a window of a residence on the fourth floor of the Crocker House Apartments on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    The First Congregational Church on State Street collapsed Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024, in New London. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    The view of the collapsed First Congregational Church in downtown New London from the nearby Mohican Building on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024. (Peter Huoppi/The Day)
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    The view of the collapsed First Congregational Church in downtown New London from the nearby Mohican Building on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024. (Peter Huoppi/The Day)
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    Emergency crews respond to the former First Congregational Church in downtown New London, as seen from a window of a residence on the fourth floor of the Crocker House Apartments on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    A search and rescue dog and handler go over the debris of the First Congregational Church on State Street that collapsed Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024, in New London. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Emergency crews get a closer look at the damage on the roof of the former First Congregational Church in downtown New London where a steeple collapsed on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    The view from a block away from the collapsed First Congregational Church on State Street Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024, in New London. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    A crowd watches from Union Street as emergency crews respond to the former First Congregational church in downtown New London where a steeple collapsed on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Mayor Michael Passero holds a news conference Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024, about the collapse of First Congregational Church on State Street in New London. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    In this file photo, the former First Congregational Church in New London is seen from the air Thursday, March 21, 2013. The church was sold in 2015 to the Engaging Heaven Church. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
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    New London ― The steeple of the former First Congregational Church collapsed Thursday afternoon, causing irreparable damage to the “cherished” New London landmark.

    There were no reported injuries or deaths.

    The 1:30 p.m. collapse left a gaping hole between two front turrets at the entrance to the 66 Union St. building, which abuts City Hall and a Connecticut College dormitory on State Street.

    The turrets were expected to be torn down Thursday night after engineers and specialized search crews combed through the rubble, Mayor Michael Passero said. At 9 p.m. Thursday, heavy equipment was moving boulders at the front of the church and a crane was stationed on the site.

    Passero said firefighters who first arrived at the collapse found one woman who had escaped from an office in the rear of the church office. Based on her comments and surveillance footage, Passero said no one else was thought to have been in the building at the time of the collapse.

    The cause of the collapse is not known. Passero said the church is inspected regularly for fire prevention purposes, but he was aware of no regular building inspections.

    “We don’t believe this was anything but a structural collapse,” he said.

    After the collapse, large granite stones spilled out onto the property’s front lawn, though a line of 11 glass church windows facing Masonic Street remained intact. Pieces of the shingle-styled roof and shards of wood that supported the structure appeared sawed off.

    Church secretary Theresa Tymes said she was in her office in the church addition to the rear when the collapse occurred.

    “I just thought it was the wind,” she said.

    Steven Govoni, president of the Maine-based development company High Tide Capital, which is restoring several properties in the city, including the Manwaring building next door to the church, said he saw stress cracks in the large granite blocks on the State Street side of the building at approximately 8:30 a.m. He added there were also pieces of granite from the blocks on the ground.

    Govoni said at that time, he and other representatives of High Tide were standing on the steps of the church, admiring the building’s architecture.

    “You can imagine what it takes to break a granite block,” he added.

    Passero said the entire church will eventually be demolished, but there was no timeline for the razing.

    Despite the massive damage – debris could be seen in nearby trees and stones spilled out onto a State Street sidewalk from the massive rubble pile – Passero said the collapse could have been much more tragic.

    “The building was nearly empty and there were no services,” Passero said. “The building fell into itself, not onto State Street or City Hall. We’re extremely fortunate; this could have been a much bigger disaster.”

    No air contamination was detected by state Department of Environmental and Energy monitoring crews. The city fire marshal and building officials office are investigating the incident, along with their state counterparts.

    Passero said there was no warning anything was structurally wrong with the church.

    Fire and safety inspection reports for the building were not immediately available from the city’s fire marshal’s office on Thursday afternoon. City building department records show the latest work-related inspection came on Jan. 10, 2020, when a fuel gas PSI test was completed.

    Other projects that required permits through the years included work to the church’s rooftop air conditioning unit and reroofing the flat roof of the church in 2001, at a cost of $10,000. One of the biggest projects listed in city records is a $249,000 addition. It is unclear from records where the addition is located.

    The Rev. Cathy Zall, executive director of the New London Homeless Hospitality Center and a co-pastor with the First Congregational Church, said her church still worships in the building every Sunday.

    “I’m so relieved nobody was inside,” she said. “This could’ve been such a disaster.”

    She said there were no concerns about the structural integrity of the building back when it was owned by First Congregational Church.

    The church was sold to the Engaging Heaven Ministries group in 2015, city property records show.

    Engaging Heaven Pastor and 15-year resident Bob Nicolls said he had been home putting the finishing touches on furniture for his daughter when he received the phone call about the collapse.

    “From my perspective, yeah, this church is coming down, but it’s a new thing for this city too,” Nicolls would say later Thursday night, as he stood across from the church in a State Street storefront, flanked by fellow Engaging Heaven members. “I think if we take advantage of it ― because these moments don’t come often ― if we take advantage of it this could be something we really unify around.”

    He and others were already trying to coordinate where the group would meet this Sunday.

    Jodi Johnson, an administrator of the First Congregational Church said the church, built in 1850, was showing signs of its age.

    “Paint was flaking off and I did see a small pile of rubble in the corner outside the building a couple of weeks ago,” she said. “One of congregants offered their house for our services this Sunday and then we’ll meet to brainstorm what we’ll do next.”

    The collapse prompted the evacuation of 56 Connecticut College students living in the nearby Manwaring building. Those students were relocated to a hotel and are not expected to return to their dorms until after the weekend.

    Police and fire crews from around the region responded to the incident and emergency vehicles lined side streets. Caution tape and sawhorses blocked vehicles from accessing the area, though large crowds of onlookers crammed the nearby streets.

    Passero said the collapse represented “a very serious setback" and involved one of the “oldest and most gorgeous religious structures” in New London.

    “But the city is resilient,” he said, noting it recovered from Benedict Arnold’s torching of the city 243 years ago. “We’ll work with the congregation to relocate them, but nothing can replace the hole in the skyline.”

    The church currently served a daily breakfast for the needy. A plan is being developed to continue serving the meal.

    “Sounded like a bomb”

    New London resident Parker Gazo said he was sitting on his couch in his apartment at the Crocker House when he heard a loud rumbling that sounded like a heavy truck going over speed bumps.

    Gazo said he saw pieces of the building and the roof collapsing. He saw bits and pieces of the building were falling and rolling off the side and onto cars. An elderly man was walking down the sidewalk with a walker and narrowly missed being hit by a piece of the building.

    Lisbon resident James Carignan was on the third floor of City Hall when he heard what he described as a tremendous noise. It was not so much a boom as a cascade of something heavy, he said. He looked out to where the front of the church used to be.

    “I saw the front lawn covered with stones all the way to the front sidewalk,” he said. “Then I turned and looked and saw the big gaping hole in the roof.”

    He left with the crowd of staffers and visitors when City Hall was evacuated.

    New London resident Holly Parkes, who is homeless and sometimes goes to the church for breakfast, said she was walking on State Street and on the phone talking to a friend when she heard a loud bang.

    “It sounded like a bomb,” she said as dust filled the air.

    Lester Harris parked his car on State Street to go to the barber shop, when he heard a loud, thunderous sound. Within seconds, he saw the whole church collapse down the middle and the steeple fall in.

    “It just brought me back to 9/11,” he said because of all the debris and smoke and concern if there was anybody in the church.

    Day Staff Writers Daniel Drainville, Kimberly Drelich, John Penney, Greg Smith, Lee Howard and Elizabeth Regan, and intern Terell Wright, contributed to this story.

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