LEVITTOWN, NY — A four-alarm blaze broke out Christmas morning — one of the holiest days in the Christian calendar — inside of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Levittown, leaving the structure badly damaged by both the fire itself and the water firefighters used to control it, though strengthening the resolve of the church's pastor.
“We will continue with services as we have been,” Pastor Remo Madsen vowed, hours after the devastating fire, making reference to the COVID-19 restrictions that has had the church live-streaming services on Facebook to parishioners who cannot attend services in person. Where the in-person services will be held is another matter, but, for now, church officials plan to move forward with Sunday worship.
"We will do it," he said.
The fire broke out at the church at 3434 Hempstead Turnpike about 11:25 a.m. and was “partially engulfed in flames” by the time police officers arrived, Nassau County police said in a press release. No injuries were reported at the scene, police said.
Video via Instagram/@J1sinc
Just the night before, about 100 congregants had attended a 6:30 p.m. service celebrating Christmas Eve, which marks the birth of Christ. They left the church at about 7:30 p.m., according to Madsen.
Madsen the fire is believed to have started in the ceiling of the church. The cause of the fire is unknown, though investigators do not believe any criminality is involved, but the investigation is ongoing, police said.
In a video posted to Facebook, a resident who lives in the neighborhood near the church, flames and smoke can be seen shooting from what appears to be two spots of the westernmost portion of the church’s roof. A resident can be heard in the background bemoaning the tragedy for happening on Christmas Day.
Lifelong Levittown resident Jose-Carlos Jones, 36, grew up nearby in his childhood home just behind the church and used to play football and manhunt with his friends there. He went to bed late last night and was looking forward to celebrating the Christmas holiday, and he said the last thing he expected was to wake up to a fire in his backyard. Nonetheless, he was roused out of his sleep by someone in his home alerting him to the fire.
"What a thing to wake up to on Christmas," said Jones, who shot video of the fire and immediately took to Twitter. "It knocked the sleep right out of me."
Police said a portion of Hempstead Turnpike, which is a heavily-trafficked roadway, had to be shut down as the fire drew about 125 firefighters from four departments, including Levittown, Wantagh, East Meadow and Bethpage. Arson and bomb squad detectives also responded to the scene.
The 70-year-old structure’s roof now has a 20-foot wide hole and its upstairs sanctuary — the holiest part of the church where mass is performed at the alter — sustained water damage during firefighters' efforts to control the flames, according to Madsen.
The fire "pretty much did in the roof," Madsen said, adding, "It's a huge hole."
As it stands, the roof will have to be replaced entirely, its walls removed, and the inside essentially gutted, Madsen said. Hours after the fire, workers from Servpro were still securing the building's windows by boarding them up, he added.
Unscathed in the blaze is the church’s iconic spire, which was placed on top during a facelift about 25 years ago, as well as antique stain glass windows — considered heirlooms because they were salvaged from a church upstate — that depict a story from the Bible in which Jesus tells stories to little children on his lap, he said. The church offices also appear to be unscathed, he said.
Jones said he believes the church will be overcome the obstacle it's now facing.
“I think it's going to be fine. They are going to fix it,” he said.
Details on where in-person church services will be held will be worked out over the next few days before Sunday worship, Madsen said.
He said that after the fire was put under control many of the church's congregants either showed up to the scene or reached out to him by phone to offer not only their support, but prayers. Placing the setback in perspective, Madsen reasoned that he believes the community will be able to withstand the difficult blow due to its faith in God.
"The church is not a building; it's the people who make a church," he said. "We are still a church even though the building is not being used at this point in time. There are more devastating things that people go through than this one. We will manage together."
Levittown NY: Firefighters from multiple area departments battled a fire this morning, at the Good Shepherd Church, on Hempstead Turnpike. One firefighter was injured fighting the fire. The cause is under investigation by the Nassau County Fire Marshal’s office. #LINEWS pic.twitter.com/QYRx6Yheoq
— emergencypatches (@mergencypatches) December 25, 2020