[UPDATE BELOW] The Flatiron District church that was gutted by fire on Sunday was one of three Orthodox churches that burned on Orthodox Easter. A church in Sydney, Australia burned, as well as another in Melbourne, Australia, at the 115-year-old Holy Church of Annunciation of Our Lady. The causes of all three fires are currently under investigation, and here in New York, the FDNY says the fire that devastated the 161-year-old St. Sava church on West 25th Street does not appear to be suspicious, so far—though the NYPD arson and explosion squad has joined the investigation.
Officials say they see no connection between the three Orthodox Easter church fires, but some members of the Serbian community nevertheless fear that the fires may have been deliberately set as part of a dispute over Pope Francis's recent decision to postpone the canonization of Croatian Aloysius Cardinal Stepinac.
"Too many churches have burned to call it an accident," Dr. Dušan T. Bataković, a former Serbian ambassador, tells the NY Post. "It is very strange that it happened, that the fires all took place on Easter, the greatest Christian Orthodox holiday. Some kind of terrorist action can not be excluded."
Barry Lituchy, executive director of Brooklyn-based human-rights nonprofit the Jasenovac Research Institute, told the Post that Orthodox community members have "bombarded" him with worried phone calls. "This is a terrible tragedy, and the thought that this is an attack has not escaped us,” Lituchy said. "This deeply affects everyone in the Serbian community.”
The fire, which one witness described as "apocalyptic," started Sunday evening after church services, and quickly engulfed the roof and most of the wood inside the structure. It took over 175 firefighters to contain the blaze, and on Monday smaller pockets of flames were still being extinguished.
Massive 3 alarm Fire burning in a church on 24 West 25 St in Manhattan
A photo posted by KolHaolam (@kolhaolam) on
Djokan Majstorovic, who has served as the church’s priest for over 17 years, told the Wall Street Journal he hopes to rebuild the church. "It really is a historical church of the city,” Father Majstorovic said. “People come here a lot of times, especially when something unfortunate happens with the family. They come here to light the candle or say a prayer."
Luxury real estate developer Madison Equities had been in negotiations to buy a church-owned adjacent lot, plus air rights, but that deal ended in litigious rancor over a $13.5 million broker's fee, which Madison argued was "exorbitant." Yesterday, an associate of the church told us developers were still interested in the church's air rights.
Reached by phone this morning, a representative of the church said "it is too early" to discuss the fire and declined to comment further.
Update 3:50 p.m.: An FDNY spokesman tells us that investigators believe the fire was likely cased by candles that were not properly extinguished. Investigators are currently exploring the possibility that one of the caretakers of the church may have put a box of candles under a table, and that one of the candles had not been snuffed out. The investigation is ongoing, but at this time it appears to be accidental.