A three-alarm inferno destroyed the historic OMC parish school on Tuesday.
The fire at OMC Parish school last Tuesday appears to have been caused by faulty electrical wiring, according to Pastor John Fisher and school Principal Patricia Sheetz.
“The official written report will not likely be available for another month, but based on a verbal report the cause of the fire has been linked to a faulty electrical circuit connecting two incandescent lights in the front of the building,” they wrote in a letter to parishioners on Monday.
The circuit that failed was a flexible, metallic cable that rested on the roof behind the parapet, they wrote.
“In an abundance of caution, other wiring and circuitry of this type on our campus is being inspected, and any needed repairs or upgrades will be made,” they said.
While the school was completely destroyed by the three-alarm fire that brought fire engines screaming up Germantown Avenue last Tuesday afternoon, the adjacent church appears to be unharmed – although it is covered in grimy soot. But inspectors have also found that a school chimney is in danger of collapsing and could cause serious damage to the church, so until that is repaired no one can get inside to start cleaning.
“We are working with engineers, contractors and inspectors to have necessary work undertaken as soon as possible to stabilize the chimney,” they said. “We expect that to happen this week.”
Once the chimney is shored up, cleanup work can begin.
“It is our great hope” to celebrate Easter week in their own church building, they wrote.
Meanwhile, they'll continue celebrating daily mass in the rectory’s chapel, Saturday mass at the Mother House at the Sisters of St. Joseph, and Sunday at Norwood-Fontbonne Academy.
As for the school, they are still figuring out where classes for the 230 currently enrolled students will be held. Temporary spaces have been offered by various schools and institutions, but no decisions have been made about how classes will be conducted for the rest of the school year.
"We need time to gather our thoughts and decide how to best move forward," Sheetz said. "All of us are working together as a team to figure that out." The school's computer equipment was destroyed in the blaze, so online classes will not be held for now. "Everything that was in the building was destroyed," she said.
The school, one of the oldest Catholic schools in Philadelphia, is celebrating its 160th anniversary this year. "It's a horrible thing to happen anytime," said Christine Konopelski, a Pastoral Associate for the parish. "But especially now."
Tuesday's devastating blaze was the second big fire in recent history, and triggered memories of the blaze that tore through the historic Hiram Lodge about seven months ago. What remains of that building, located in the heart of the neighborhood's central business district, is still encircled by wire mesh fencing and does not yet have a roof.
"I couldn't help but think about [Hiram Lodge]," said Chestnut Hill resident Liz, who did not want to give her last name. She attends services at the church every Sunday. "This church is all about community," she said. "It's been here for generations."
The blaze appears to have sparked in the attic. Firefighters were called to the scene at 3:40 p.m. School had been dismissed at 2:45 p.m., but children in the aftercare program had to be evacuated. Firefighters brought the fire under control at 5:10 p.m. on Tuesday and are still investigating the cause.
Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel said firefighters initially made an "aggressive interior attack" but the flames were deeply embedded in the building, so they were forced to evacuate to escape the collapsing structure. "The fire was already really into the ceiling and the attic space when our second arriving companies arrived," Thiel told reporters. "So it was a pretty severe fire...and we're thankful that nobody was injured."
The only injury in Tuesday's blaze was to a firefighter who was taken to a hospital by EMTs. Thiel described the injury as "minor."
According to Konopelski, a parent who came to the school to pick up her child noticed smoke coming from the roof and ran inside to report it. Staff and students still in the school evacuated, and the children were taken in by a neighbor.
One fire official on the scene compared the fire's speed with the fire that engulfed the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. "An old building with heavy timbers like that? The fire sank into the building so fast," the official said.
Jim Long, a Chestnut Hill resident, was outside the school when the first fire truck arrived.
"I was out going for my daily walk and I saw the middle section go up in flames," Long said. "Then it just spread across the entire building."
According to the Chestnut Hill Conservancy, the school building is listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. Built in 1915, it was designed by architect Jacob Myers, Son & Company. The roof of the two-story stone building had a cupola atop it before it was destroyed by the fire.
Tom Beck, Kristin Holmes, and Leisha Shaffer contributed to this report.