Steeple passes inspection following lightning strike

(Updated August 4, 2006, 12:05 p.m.)

By Mike Heine/The Week

"Nothing short of a miracle."

That's how St. Andrew's Catholic School Principal Julie Supernaw described the news that the adjoining church's steeple did not have to be torn down.

Lightning struck the steeple about 6:02 p.m. Wednesday, setting the 111-year-old wooden structure ablaze.

Engineers announced Thursday afternoon that the steeple could be saved.

Two 170-foot cranes were called in from Milwaukee and Madison so engineers from several companies could inspect damage to the 140-foot structure.

Inspectors check the integrity of the steeple that was hit by lightning and burned at Delavan's St. Andrew's Catholic Church. They determined that the steeple does not need to be removed.

"They have no structural concerns at this time," Assistant Fire Chief Tim O'Neill said. "(Workers are) simply securing pieces that might be loose that could fall on pedestrians and traffic."

Highways 50 and 11 were closed to traffic for about a one-block radius around the church after the fire began. They remained closed until the cranes left about 7 p.m. Thursday.

Structural engineer Shilak Shakya said some of the steeple's cross-member supports are burned, but could be replaced without removing any major parts.

"The main structures inside are in good shape," said Shakya, of the Milwaukee engineering company Pujara Wirth Torke.

Crane crewmen Thursday afternoon began tearing off asphalt shingles loosened by high-pressure water from fire trucks.

"The overriding concern is the safety of the people on the street and the integrity of the building," said Rev. Brian Holbus.

Insurance adjusters confirmed that a lightning strike started the blaze, but they still were assessing the damage. A damage estimate was unavailable at press time.

The fire was contained to the steeple above the bell tower. Water damage was limited to the area immediately below the steeple and in the front entryway, Fire Chief Neil Flood said.

The fate of the copper-covered wooden cross on top of the steeple was the concern of many onlookers. Engineers said the cross can stay up, a relief to many of the church's 600-plus members.

"You could always see it from anywhere," said Lillian Rhoades. "It is a landmark."

"It's such a thing of beauty in the city," Holbus said. "Everywhere you are you can see it."

Fire insurance should pay for most of the damage, Holbus said. However, parishioners have been coming forward and offering whatever they can.

The damaged areas would be covered temporarily until repairs could begin in a week or two, O'Neill said.

Church services will go on as planned, Holbus said. That includes Saturday's wedding for a young Sharon couple.

"I think we were very lucky," Rhoades said. "I think we have a lot to be thankful for."

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