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Heating tools suspected in fire at historic Milwaukee church (UPDATE)

Pastor Hunter Hofmann, second from the left, walks with fire investigators Wednesday, May 16 the morning after fire burned a portion of Trinity Lutheran Church in Milwaukee. Contractors were working on the building but the cause of the fire is currently under investigation. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack) TrinityFire2_klh The charred remains of Trinity Lutheran Church stand Wednesday, May 16 the morning after fire burned a portion of the building. Contractors were working on the building but the cause of the fire is currently under investigation. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

Pastor Hunter Hofmann, second from the left, walks with fire investigators on Wednesday, the day after fire burned a portion of Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in Milwaukee. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack) 

A blaze that caused millions of dollars in damage to a landmark Lutheran church in Milwaukee was likely caused by a heating tool left by a contractor repairing the church’s roof, Milwaukee fire officials said on Wednesday.

The roof of the 140-year-old Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, 1046 N. 9th St., caught fire the day before. The blaze ultimately caused about $17 million worth of damage to the ornate historic structure, according to preliminary estimates. The fire left nothing but charred beams standing over the church’s main atrium and incinerated a massive pipe organ, which itself is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Brian Smith, assistant chief at the Milwaukee Fire Department, said the fire started on the structure’s roof, where a contractor had been working earlier that day. Investigators were close to entirely sure that the fire was started accidentally, he said.

“It was some kind of heating tool that was left at the construction site,” Smith said.

And although the heating tool likely caused the blaze, fire officials could not say for certain that the contractor working on the roof was to blame, Milwaukee Fire Chief Mark Rohlfing said.

“We haven’t put it together, so we can’t say that is the cause,” he said.

The church’s pastor called in the fire at about 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, and fire crews arrived at the scene within minutes, Rohlfing said. At the height of the blaze, about 110 firefighters were battling it. That was a “significant portion” of the 200 firefighters that were on-duty in Milwaukee that day.

“We’re zeroing in on the cause, and right now we can’t talk about that,” Rohlfing said.

Rohlfing and Smith could not say which contractor was working on the roof when the fire began. Likewise, Jonah Burakowski, missions and human care director at the Lutheran Church Missouri-Synod, South Wisconsin District, declined to name the contractor.

“We’ve actually been asked to not say too much until the investigation is done,” he said.

Church officials plan to confer on Thursday to decide where they will meet this coming Sunday. Eventually, they will have to decide where they will hold their services while their building is being repaired.

Burakowski said, even while the fire was raging, Trinity received calls from people at other churches who offered their space for the congregation.

Early estimates peg the cost of the church’s exterior damage at $13 million, while the fire caused about $4 million worth of damage inside the church.

It’s unclear whether repairing the organ is even possible, Burakowski said. The organ, which was built out of metal and wood, was extensively damaged.

Burakowski said the church would work to salvage the remains of the building. Its brick walls remain standing; but most of the roof was destroyed, causing a spire to collapse.

The building’s future now largely depends on how much money the congregation will be able to get from insurance and how much it will be able raise in donations..

“I would say we’re probably going to have to find a lot of ways to find a project such as this, depending on how big the insurance (payment is),” Burakowski said. “The insurance companies will cover it to a certain point, and then depending on where we go with it, we’ll determine how much more it’s going to cost. That is actually a decision that will be made by the congregation.”

About Nate Beck, nbeck@dailyreporter.com

Nate Beck is The Daily Reporter's construction staff writer. He can be reached at (414) 225-1814 (office) or 414-388-5635 (mobile).

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