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Collapsed ceiling replaced at Pa. church

March 04, 2002|BY RICHARD F. BELISLE

WAYNESBORO, Pa. - The new ceiling is up at Trinity United Church of Christ.

But the 1,200 pipes in the Moller organ still have to be taken out and cleaned, new carpeting has to be installed and the pews, altar, pulpit and lectern have to be redone before the church is ready for services again.

"We're ahead of schedule," said The Rev. James Williams, who with his wife, Linda, is pastor of the church at 30 W. North St.

At 4 p.m. on July 31, 2001, the church ceiling collapsed in a roar, crashing down on an empty sanctuary less than an hour after the church organist had left the building.

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The ceiling collapsed in one piece - a pendulum-like swath of heavy plaster held together by metal lathes. It swept the sanctuary from front to back, ending up in a three-ton pile of debris in the rear of the sanctuary, Williams said last week.

"It would have killed a third of the people in here if it happened on Sunday," Williams said.

About 200 parishioners attend services on an average Sunday morning in summer, he said.

Powdery brown, blown-in insulation coupled with the dust of tons of pulverized plaster created a black cloud that hung in the sanctuary for weeks afterward, Williams said.

"The church secretary said she looked in the sanctuary right after it happened and it was pitch black," Williams said.

He likened the scene in the sanctuary to that of Ground Zero at the World Trade Center following the Sept. 11 attacks.

Engineers who inspected the rubble were never able to find a cause.

"We don't know," Williams said. "We got to the point where we didn't care anymore. It just happened and we don't know."

The collapse will cost Kemper Insurance, the company that insures the church, $500,000, Williams said. The company has cooperated fully, he said.

Scaffolding still reaches 40 feet from the floor to the new ceiling where workers are adding finishing touches.

There was some structural damage to the building, which has stood since 1877.

At first, the sanctuary was on the second floor but that was removed in a major renovation in 1950. The building was converted to a high-ceilinged, single-story room, Williams said. The ceiling that collapsed was part of that renovation, he said.

Williams hopes to rededicate the sanctuary in early June.

There is still much to be done.

Eight pews were destroyed. A small woodworking shop in Lancaster County, Pa., is making replicas. The 22 pews that weren't destroyed are being refinished to match those being built, as are the altar, lectern and pulpit.

The interior of the sanctuary is being repainted in colors similar to those in a church in Colonial Williamsburg, Va., Williams said.

Air conditioning is being installed in the rest of the church complex while repairs are under way in the sanctuary.

Attendance has dropped by 15 percent since July, Williams said. Services are being held in the interim in a basement meeting room.

"It's not as comfortable in the basement," he said.

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