The Rev. Demetrios Kazakis, face heavy with sorrow and fingertips covered in soot, stood on glass shards in the nave of the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in West Babylon, where a fire Tuesday night charred the altar.
No one was injured in the fire, which is being investigated by Suffolk County's Arson Squad. The blaze apparently started in the altar server room and spread to the nearby altar, torching nearly all of the iconographical artwork depicting holy figures hand-painted by Greek Orthodox artists that took years to make, Kazakis said. The initial damage estimate to the church is nearly $7 million, he said.
"We're not going to roll over and die," said Kazakis, 30, whose hands had small cuts from handling the debris and shattered glass inside the church. Kazakis has been presiding priest of the church for more than two years and lives about five minutes away. He said the lost items were priceless to the worshippers.
"The parishioners walked into the church, they saw the damage," Kazakis said, wearing a church robe he kept in his car, sparing it from the fire. "We cried together and we're going to rebuild and nothing's going to stop us."
Sophie Knudsen, 85, of Copiague, sat Wednesday by Kazakis in the church's front garden, away from the smell of lingering smoke. She's been a member for nearly 43 years. A fellow parishioner comforted Knudsen as she cried after seeing the church's condition for the first time Wednesday afternoon.
"You try to do the best you can do and something comes up, but, that's life," Knudsen said. "We'll get back to where we were before, I think so."
Later, Knudsen stood by two tables serving almost as gurneys for items recovered by the West Babylon and Babylon fire departments and parishioners. About half a dozen ornate plates, nearly 10 golden grails and a painting of St. Nicholas and his remains in a holy chest rested on the tables. Despite the destruction, Kazakis said the church would conduct services as early as Sunday in a makeshift location, perhaps a tent in the parking lot or a church hallway not heavily affected by smoke or water damage. The church serves a congregation of almost 300 families.
"There are people who would have thrown up their hands and said, 'We're going to leave the church. We're not going to rebuild our church. We're not going to rebuild our community,' " Kazakis said. "This church does not have those people."