VTS chapel fire ruled accidental

October 28, 2010

The Oct. 22 fire that quickly destroyed the chapel at Virginia Theological Seminary has been ruled accidental.

The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) announced its findings Oct. 28. ATF's National Response Team, along with ATF special agents from Falls Church, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., worked with the Alexandria Fire Department to investigate the cause of the fire. The federal response is routine when a fire of this size occurs in a house of worship, the seminary and the ATF said.

The fire began in a trash can left near a heater in the sacristy, Susan Shillinglaw, VTS director of communication, told ENS.

The team of investigators removed the debris from the heavily damaged structure, took photographs, recovered fire debris from the scene for laboratory analysis and conducted more than 40 interviews throughout the campus, according to the ATF.

"It is clear that the fire was not caused by any deliberate or criminal act," the Very Rev. Ian S. Markham, VTS dean and president, said in a message posted on the VTS website. "Although the fire was caused by human agency, those involved took 'steps that any responsible person would have taken.' However, these steps were not sufficient to stop the catastrophe that followed."

"It is agreed that all involved behaved with integrity and thoughtfulness," he added.

Markham said the fire's aftermath "is not a time for blame" but is "a time for reflection and prayer" during which the members of the community "are called to surround each other with love."

There was no smoke detector or sprinkler system in the late Victorian wooden structure, he said.

Markham called the fire "a brutal reminder to us all to handle with enormous care anything that can be flammable," adding that the seminary will be reviewing fire safety for all buildings on the campus.

Damage to the chapel, consecrated in 1881, is estimated at $2.5 million, the ATF said. (A photo of the chapel interior before the fire is here.)

Consideration will soon be given to a permanent building, the school said in an Oct. 28 press release. Several local organizations, including the nearby Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill and Episcopal High School, the First Baptist Church of Alexandria and the Beth El Hebrew Congregation, have offered the seminary temporary worship space the VTS release said.

VTS board of trustees chair and Diocese of Easton Bishop James Shand said in a message to the seminary community Oct. 27 that the trustees held an emergency telephone meeting over the previous weekend and confirmed the school's intention to eventually build a new chapel.

Meanwhile, Diocese of Virginia Bishop Shannon Johnston, who was in Haiti at the time of the fire, visited the VTS campus on Oct. 25, telling students and faculty that "you are in so many ways the heartbeat of our diocese." Recently retired Diocese of Kentucky Bishop Ted Gulick, who will become Virginia assistant bishop on Jan. 1, came to campus while the fire was being fought to provide pastoral support to the VTS community, a diocesan press release said.

A Facebook tribute page quickly filled with news and reminisces of chapel life since the page had its first post roughly five hours after the fire broke out. The Rev. Peter Carey, a VTS alumnus from 2007 and assistant rector at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Greenwood, Virginia, set up the page, Shillinglaw said.