Normally a peaceful sanctuary, the College Street Congregational Church in Burlington was filled with uncertainty Thursday as restoration experts surveyed damage.
"The carpeting has to go," church member Bill Harwood noted.
Police say Aliaksandr Bychkou, 32, broke into the church early Wednesday morning and set a fire in the 1866-era bell tower. He told police he was suffering from panic attacks and heard voices telling him to visit a church in Burlington, access its bell tower and search for treasure. He denied an arson charge in court.
At the church, the cleanup has begun. A crane has arrived that will take down the iconic steeple Friday, depending on the weather. If everything goes as planned, the steeple will be completely torn down by the end of the day Friday.
G.W. Savage is coming up with a plan to restore the church, saying it needs to move forward slowly because there is a lot of content damage. Every nook needs to be inspected for destruction.
"The steeple is very badly damaged. A lot of water came through the building," said Tyler Savage, the general manager of G.W. Savage.
"It's horrible," Harwood said. "It's where I've been coming, I was baptized here, I grew up in this church."
Harwood is trying to help out in any way he can.
"We are not sure yet what the damage is yet to the floor and underneath the floor," he said.
"Some have been in tears and some bound and determined to make the best of it," the Rev. Charlie Purinton said.
Many areas of the church were unaffected; Burlington firefighters kept the blaze contained in the bell tower. But the steeple does have to come down. Officials say it is a safety concern. There is a perimeter around the church since the slate tiles can easily be blown off by the wind. Crews were removing tiles jammed into the ground after high pressure water from fire hoses knocked them off during the fire.
"You just never know what might have happened. The insurance company and customer are very concerned because they're going to want to take this steeple down ASAP," Savage said.
The fire comes just after the church finished $2 million in renovations. A big setback, but the congregation is looking ahead.
"That's why I'm down here, because I'm doing what I can to get this church back functioning," Harwood said.
"I'm surprised how fast it's going," Purinton said. "It will help people recover better the quicker it goes."
A lot of the work G.W. Savage will have to do will be determined once they talk with the Historical Society because this is a historic landmark. Thursday night, the church community will meet to discuss where Sunday's service will be since it will not be safe in this church.
And we're learning new details about the arson suspect, Aliaksandr Bychkou.
We got word from the Unitarian Church in Burlington that Bychkou asked for a tour of that church Saturday. He got a tour of the sanctuary. And he came back Sunday and introduced himself as a new member of that church. Church leaders have been in contact with Burlington Police about that.
We should also point out that Bychkou has no prior criminal history.
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