An Unpleasant Call in the Middle of the Night
It’s seldom good news when the phone rings in the middle of the night. The call in the early morning hours of December 17, 2010 was no exception. I was sleeping soundly at home when around 3:00 a.m. I received a call from the Provo Police and Fire Dispatch Center informing me that the tabernacle was on fire. The Provo Tabernacle; no further description was needed.
The Provo Tabernacle had been a busy place over the past couple of days in preparation for the production of “Gloria,” a musical celebration of the birth of Christ. A dress rehearsal was held until late Thursday night. But now a fire was racing through the attic of the building, consuming the wooden roof structure that was over 100 years old.
The dispatcher patched my call through to the on-duty Battalion Chief, Roger Gourley, who explained that the fire was well advanced on his arrival and his crews were not safely able to sustain an effective interior fire attack. He simply but effectively summed up the situation in two words, “it’s bad.”
A Landmark Devoured by Flame
When I arrived on the scene a short time later, I realized how bad it was. The fire had broken through the roof and it was impossible for the crews to deliver enough water to the locations where it would be most effective in slowing the flame spread. At approximately 4:30 a.m., the west end of the roof collapsed, and the open flames lit up the dark and cold winter sky.
A feeling of hopelessness set in as the fire continued to race through the rest of the roof structure. A number of water streams were deployed at different angles to try to slow the spread but to no avail. The remainder of the roof structure collapsed around 6:00 am, pulling down a portion of the east gable. The entire contents of the tabernacle were now buried under the collapsed burning roof. A feeling of gloom and despair was felt by most everyone on scene that morning. In addition to the numbing effect of the freezing temperatures and snow, we were emotionally numb as we experienced the helpless feeling of the loss of this historic and sacred landmark.
Firefighters love to save lives and property, and fortunately there was no loss of life as a result of this fire. In fact, there was not even a serious injury. But this was a hard morning for the firefighters in Provo, as they had failed to save this important, historic structure, and the morale was very low. The fact that the fire was too far advanced when it was discovered, and the ceiling was beginning to fall on the first crew as they entered the building, was little consolation to a group of men and women who take pride in preserving buildings, especially one as important to the community as the Provo Tabernacle.
An Unusual Prompting
At this point, it was apparent that there was no course of action but to continue to pour water onto what the day before had been benches, doors, wall furnishings, instruments, production equipment, etc., but was now basically a pile of burning rubble about 15 to 20 feet deep. Thetabernacle had been destroyed. Thousands of gallons of water per minute were being poured into the rubble, and a considerable amount of it was running across the parking lot, down the sidewalks and streets, and turning into dangerous sheets of ice.
After the collapse of the roof there was some discussion among the operations officers about bringing is some equipment to knock down the exterior walls for safety reasons, and to better reach the seat of the fire burning below the failed roof.
When a building is involved in a fire so extensively that everything is destroyed except for the exterior walls, it’s a typical practice to push the walls over in a controlled manner rather than taking the chance of them falling on their own, where people might be injured.
But as I listened to the discussion, I had a very strong feeling come over me. No, we would not knock over the walls. I remember thinking that the walls and corner turrets were all that were still standing in this catastrophic accident, and we would not destroy them.
“No, we will not push the walls over,” I told the on-duty suppression crew. “They are all we are able to salvage and we will give them back to the building owner (the Church). If they wish to tear them down, that will be their choice.”
Although I initially received some push back due to safety concerns, the thought of destroying those walls was very troubling. I felt very strongly that we needed to preserve them. And so, against all my firefighter training, we did our best to extinguish the fire without knocking down the walls.
A Community Coming Together
It was nearly 38 hours from the time the fire was reported until the fire was declared to be out.
But once it was out, arrangements were quickly made for a structural engineer to evaluate what remained of the building. In the following days, a construction crew erected bracing to stabilize the remaining structure for investigation and cleanup crews began the tedious task of determining the cause of the fire.
During the course of the day after the fire, hundreds of spectators gathered in the freezing weather, many shedding tears and staring in disbelief. Some stood in silence, while others talked openly about memories of the tabernacle and their attendance at conferences, graduations, productions, and other meetings. Many people offered food and bottled water to the firefighters. Local businesses donated pizza and sandwiches. The Red Cross provided breakfast to all of the fire and police responders. Everyone was feeling an enormous loss, and wanted to help in some way.
A Small Part in God’s Newest Temple
At the Saturday morning session of general conference on October 1, 2011, as President Monson began to speak about the Provo Tabernacle, I listened intently as I anticipated his announcement that it would be rebuilt. But President Monson’s proclamation that it would be rebuilt as a temple, the second in Provo, took me by surprise. Although I was watching at home, I think I gasped aloud along with many of the members who were in attendance at the Conference Center. I could hardly hold back tears as I realized that what once was a community treasure would again stand magnificent, now as a sacred temple.
I am grateful that I had the opportunity to witness the temple groundbreaking and site dedication in May 2012, to tour the nearly completed temple in December 2015, and attend the temple dedication in March 2016. At each of these events, I paused to reflect on that bitter cold December morning when we lost the Provo Tabernacle, yet were able to preserve the exterior of the building that is now a sacred temple. I am filled with gratitude for the inspired decision of the prophet to transform the remains of the burned tabernacle into the stunning Provo City Center Temple, and I’m grateful for the very small part that I had in its preservation.
Lead image from Daily Herald.
Blair Camp served as Provo City Fire Chief from September 2007 to August 2012. His fire service career spanned over 35 years and included service with the Murray City Fire Department, Provo City Fire Department, Utah Fire and Rescue Academy, University of Utah, and Brigham Young University.