Fire destroys church hall

By brian donahue
Staff Writer

Fire destroys
church hall
By brian donahue
Staff Writer

JEFF GRANIT A large hole in the ground contains the charred remains of the old church hall on Old Bridge Turnpike in East Brunswick Monday.JEFF GRANIT A large hole in the ground contains the charred remains of the old church hall on Old Bridge Turnpike in East Brunswick Monday.

EAST BRUNSWICK — Police were still trying this week to determine the cause of a fire that destroyed an 80-year-old church hall at Old Bridge Turnpike and Chestnut Street early Saturday morning.

The fire began shortly after 3 a.m. and within minutes completely engulfed the two-story wooden structure, which was part of the Nativity of Our Lord Byzantine Catholic Church and was used for CCD classes, dinners, Sunday coffee klatsches and numerous fund-raisers.

Authorities have labeled the fire as suspicious, and an investigation is ongoing to determine whether it was caused by vandals who damaged property outside the building late Friday night or early Saturday morning. Sometime after church members finished a Friday evening potato pancake fund-raiser, unknown vandals knocked over flower pots, threw topsoil about, pulled a sign out of the ground and ripped the letters off another sign, according to East Brunswick police Detective Kevin Zebro.

"They have to be pretty strong," Bob Bruce, a church trustee, said of the vandals, explaining that one sign that was pulled out and bent was covered in a metal frame and bound by metal wire.

Bruce said vandalism has occurred on the church grounds on other occasions in the recent past. The letters had been ripped from a sign advertising an Atlantic City bus trip about a month ago, he said.

"It’s been off and on with that kind of thing," he said.

However, he said the church has no evidence to indicate that the vandals had anything to do with the fire, and there remains the possibility it was caused by accident.

Zebro said Tuesday it was too early in the investigation to draw any conclusions, and he asked that anyone who knew anything about the vandalism or who saw the vandals to call him at (732) 390-6990 or investigator Bob Ritz at the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office at (732) 745-4258.

The fire was reported due to an activated smoke detector in the church hall, according to Jack Paradise, chief of East Brunswick Volunteer Fire District No. 1. A captain with the fire company who lives near the church and arrived at the scene within minutes of the call reported that flames were already shooting through the roof of the building when he got there,Paradise said.

Firefighters initially tried to extinguish the flames from inside the building, but quickly learned they would have to fight the fire entirely from the outside.

"We could feel the heat coming through the floor," Paradise said, noting that he or­dered everyone out of the building as a re­sult. "From that point, we went to an aerial operation."

The fire spread rapidly because the wooden building was "an old balloon con­struction" with no fire stops in the walls, Paradise said.

With about 35 firefighters responding, the fire was brought under control in about two hours. Many continued to work at the scene, however, until 3 p.m. One fire­fighter was treated for a minor injury.

No surrounding structures were dam­aged.

All three township fire departments fought the fire, while the South Old Bridge, South River, Milltown and North Brunswick No. 2 departments were on standby for East Brunswick.

Church officials are discussing rebuild­ing the hall, according to Bruce.