The South Pasadena Fire Department was among the very first to respond to what eventually grew to a four-alarm fire that ended up destroying most of the roof of the church at the iconic, 249-year-old San Gabriel Mission last Saturday.
Five officers and two vehicles — an engine and utility vehicle — were dispatched at 4:45 a.m. as part of the second alarm of the response, according to Fire Chief Paul Riddle.
“Our Battalion Chief Chris Szenczi was assigned as the safety officer at the scene and our engine crew was what we call fire tech,” Riddle said. “But [the effort] was already defensive at the time.”
When firefighters arrived, smoke was billowing out of the doors on the second floor and the roof area, according to eyewitnesses. Firefighters from the San Gabriel Fire Department attempted to go inside the church but quickly held off as the roof was giving way and raining smoldering debris on the first responders. However, firefighters continued to battle the blaze, which eventually was extinguished at 6:48 a.m.
Riddle said the SPPD called in a crew of three firefighters to man a reserve engine and the Pasadena Fire Department sent an engine and crew to cover for those battling the mission fire.
“This is basically what happens with what we call our ‘unified response,’” said Riddle, who explained that personnel and equipment are frequently dispatched through the Verdugo Fire Communications System, which includes 13 agencies. “We are basically borderless,” Riddle said. “They just see what stations are going to need backfill.”
In total, approximately 80 fire personnel responded to the blaze.
It is believed that the church’s altar can be salvaged. Several historic paintings, the Stations of the Cross and other artifacts had been removed from the sanctuary as part of the renovations being done to prepare for the mission’s 250th anniversary next year. The mission had recently undergone a restoration of its wooden pews, but they were all lost in the tragedy.
Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez conducted a late-morning Mass at the mission on Sunday and said a fundraising campaign to pay for rebuilding is already underway.
“This destruction comes as we are getting ready to celebrate the 250th anniversary of this great mission. But this fire changes nothing. Mission San Gabriel will always be the spiritual heart of the church in Los Angeles, the place from which the Gospel still goes forth,’’ Gomez said during his homily.
No injuries were reported, according to Capt. Antonio Negrete of the San Gabriel Fire Department. “It’s a tragic loss for our city. It’s our city identifier,’’ Negrete said. “We’re trying to cope with it.’’
On Saturday afternoon, investigators from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and a regional task force including San Marino, San Gabriel, Monterey Park and Monrovia investigators were busy in the front of the mission where the fire was believed to have started, Negrete said.
A dog from the Los Angeles Fire Department was also on the scene, sniffing to see if any accelerants were used to start or spread the fire, Negrete said. A report on the cause was expected to take a week or more. The San Gabriel Fire Department said the initial investigation showed no sign of arson.
“We need to be diligent in our investigation and check all of the boxes,’’ Negrete said. While arson investigations are routine after all fires at houses of worship, Negrete noted this blaze came at a time of criticism of the California missions and damage to several statues of St. Junipero Serra, who founded the San Gabriel Mission in 1771. Church staff removed a statue of Serra from public view last week and put it in safe storage, Negrete said.
To rebuild the mission, the church has set up a special fund at lacatholics.org/restoration.
City News Service contributed to this report.