An old furnace pipe may have been the cause of a fire that gutted a historic Yaphank church early Sunday, church officials said.
"It's completely gutted in the back, the inside of the building is completely burned," said Yaphank Fire Department Chief Chris Austin, adding that the church's front steeple remained "intact" despite some fire damage.
Austin said it took nine departments, including some 75 firefighters, nearly 2 1/2 hours to get the early morning blaze under control at the church, which was built in 1851.
Member Marjorie Nicodemus, 78, of Shirley, said she came to the church Sunday morning to put up the hymn numbers and practice the organ, which she plays for the church.
"I went into shock," said Nicodemus, who has worshipped there for more than 40 years. "I got out of the car and started crying."
Suffolk County's arson squad and the Brookhaven Town fire marshal are investigating the cause, Austin said. But fire investigators told church members Sunday that after a preliminary review, the likely cause of the fire was a section of furnace pipe, Pastor Glorya Johnson said. A hole in the pipe allowed heat to escape, igniting the floor boards, Johnson said.
Suffolk police said in a news release that the cause of the fire was noncriminal.
"I'm just thankful it wasn't arson," Johnson said. "It would be very difficult to forgive someone for something like that."
Congregants worshipped Sunday at a morning church service in a building behind the burned-out shell, which has a gaping blackened hole in the back. Charred, soggy pages of hymnals lay scattered outside the church.
After the service, members lingered over coffee, remembering the stained glass windows that generations of the congregation had donated in memory of their families, the organ that was right underneath the center of the blaze and the piano that was tuned only a few days before.
Johnson said it is "a time of grieving . . . People are devastated."
Just the night before, members of the church served coffee and tea to Yaphank's annual Christmas parade, which went right by the church. The church's float Saturday night was a replica of the church, 4 feet tall at the roof and 7 feet tall at the steeple. It won fourth place out of 74 entries, said Stanley Patrick, 62, of Centereach.
Johnson said it was too early to know if the building could be saved. She said she didn't know the extent of damage to papers and documents that were stored in the basement. Johnson was confident that historic records of church members were up high enough not to be damaged by the water, but she was less sure about the church's financial documents and other legal papers.
The building is insured, but she won't know until Monday what the insurance will cover.
Ultimately though, Johnson said, "the building is just a symbol. The community of faith is the church."
Kathy Tuthill, 59, of Selden, said her 5-year-old granddaughter, Crystal Montoya of Selden, was set to perform the Christmas pageant on Dec. 21 in the church.
Tuthill said she's thankful there's a back building, where the pageant will go on, and Crystal can sing her solo, "Joy to the World."
With Laura Figueroa