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‘Deeply saddened:’ Firefighters battle 4-alarm blaze at historic church in downtown Milwaukee

MILWAUKEE -- Firefighters battled a massive, four-alarm fire at at Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in downtown Milwaukee Tuesday, May 15. The church is located at 9th and Highland.

The good news in this case -- no injuries were reported. The cause of the fire is under investigation.

"Everyone is accounted for at this time," said Brian Smith with the Milwaukee Fire Department.

In an update around 5:30 p.m., Smith said there were "about 85 personnel on scene, battling this fire."

"It required us to call in extra equipment. With a church of this size -- required a lot of aerial ladder trucks...with water towers aiming toward the building to put the fire out," said Smith.

Smith noted one steeple collapsed -- which was caught on camera.

"We did change our collapse zone so now the whole entire building -- we are across the street from it in case we have another incident like that," said Smith.

Smith noted Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church is a "historical landmark."

"Whenever you have a large wooden structure and fire, that's always a concern," said Smith.

He said it's "too early to tell" where the fire started. He noted the first call was for a fire on the roof -- which came in around 3:45 p.m.

In the update Tuesday evening, Smith said firefighters weren't going inside "for safety and the fear of collapse."

"We're gonna fight this fire from the exterior before we even attempt to get in the building," said Smith.

There was no damage to any other buildings, and no other businesses had to be shut down, but fire personnel were stationed at some surrounding businesses to ensure everything was OK.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett also spoke out at the scene Tuesday evening.

"As you can see, there is extensive damage, and it's a simply amazing church on the inside and outside. The Fire Department has done a fabulous job getting here and putting the fire out. I think it was a challenge at first, but they got it under control very quickly. My understanding is no one was hurt, which is good news, but you hate to see a building that is this impressive -- that is important to the history of the city with this extensive damage," said Barrett.

Avis Chmielewski, a parishioner, said there were repairs being made to the roof of the church "and there was scaffolding up as recently as this past Sunday (Mother's Day)." She could not elaborate on the extent of the roof repairs.

"It's an old building and we have had renovation projects going on and so it's -- it is that age of a building where there is always a need for repairs. That was going on in my mind. I have no way of knowing -- in my mind there is a relation there. There could be cause and effect from working on a roof. I am devastated. This church -- we have been members for about 10 years and I have become very involved, especially in the music program, and I am just devastated to see what's happening," said Chmielewski.

Chmielewski said she was concerned about the church's organ.

"Just looking at what the news cameras show, it looks like where the organ is, there wasn't fire shooting out of that spire, but I have no idea what we would find inside the building and that's gonna be really hard. Water damage, and the pipes are made out of some softer metals -- I cannot imagine that it will have survived unscathed. It's gonna be a wait and see now to find out what has actually happened," said Chmielewski.

Chmielewski said "I was the one who let them know that Trinity was burning." She noted that the church is currently without a pastor, as the pastor retired at the end of 2017.

"We have vacancy pastors every Sunday. We don't even really have a pastoral leader at this point. We are in the very early stages of calling a new pastor," said Chmielewski.

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Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a designated State Historic Site.

Trinity Lutheran Church released the following statement following the fire:

"We are deeply saddened by the fire that occurred at Historic Trinity Lutheran Church in downtown Milwaukee this afternoon. At this time, we are unaware of any injuries and have no knowledge of how the fire started. The steeples at Trinity have been a part of the Milwaukee skyline for over 150 years. Our district mourns the loss of the building, but we give thanks for the gospel message that has been proclaimed there for generations. We give thanks for the brave men and women of the Milwaukee Police and Fire Departments who risked their safety in responding to the fire. We lift the congregation and pastors in our prayers."

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) released this statement:

"More often than not ATF assists with the investigation of church fires."

"But at this time it is too early to tell if we [ATF ] will be involved.”

According to the church's website, Trinity's current location, known as Terrace Garden, was constructed in 1878.  The building was designed by Fredrick Velguth in Victorian Gothic style.  The total cost (in 1878 dollars) was $43,500 ($40,000 for the church, $3,500 for the organ) which was paid in full by the completion of construction.  The building is built out of cream city brick and rests on a limestone foundation.  The Church is built in the shape of a cross, 145 feet long, 89 feet wide and 54 feet high.  There are three towers with spires, the largest of which is the north tower at 200 feet tall.  This tower is topped by a golden sphere with a cross measuring 14 1/2 feet tall.  The bell tower has 3 real bells (keyed in "D", 'F#' and 'A') with a combined weight of 5263 lbs.  These bells still ring today at the start of each service.

All interior woodwork was hand carved from Wisconsin Oak and Ash.  The pulpit, a creation of Gothic art in wood, is shaped like a communion chalice and topped by a shell-like canopy.  Stained glass windows behind the alter feature the Gospel writers.  Above the altar is a roundel of Jesus and the children.  Paintings in the altar, created by Fredrich Wehle, present two different themes one beginning in Advent and one in Lent.   The original church lighting consisted of two gas-list chandeliers - one with 72 burners and the other with 48.  The current Belgium wrought iron chandeliers with electric lights were installed in 1942.

The building was declared a Milwaukee landmark in 1967, a State Historical Landmark in 1979 and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.

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