8-2-13 – Location – Chile – Incident – Historic Church Destroyed By Fire

Police investigate nearby student party following the burning of a historic, recently renovated church in Chile’s cultural capital, leaving it a charred husk.

Despite frantic attempts to quell a fire which began in the early hours of Friday morning, firefighters could not extinguish the flames that led to the near total destruction of the historic San Francisco church in Valparaíso.

The fire began at approximately 4 a.m. and firefighters reached the scene at 4:30 a.m., having been alerted to the blaze by a member of the public. The fire had spread extensively by that time.

Alongside the 14 fire companies from Valparaíso, Chile’s uniformed police force the Carabineros, officials from the National Emergency Office (ONEMI), Chile’s Investigative Police (PDI), workers from electrical company Chilquinta and paramedics from the Emergency Medical Services (SAMU) responded.

While there are not yet any official accounts of what happened, Ricardo Rodríguez, chief of the Valparaíso fire department, said that one hypothesis is that the fire was started in conjunction with a folk rock festival and barbecue that took place during the night in the Math Department of the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso (PUCV), which is next door to the church.

The flames were so high they were reportedly visible across the entire port city.

However, Claudio Elórtegui, PUCV’s chancellor, defended the university’s students against any alleged involvement.

“Indeed, there was a group of students [near the church], but we have to be clear that [the gathering] ended at 2 a.m., and the fire started at 4 a.m., so in principle the two events would not be related,” he said.

In an official statement, the university expressed regret over the disaster.

“Our university, as an institution of the Church, feels and deeply regrets the unfortunate fact of the destruction of an iconic Catholic church of our diocese, which was in an advanced stage of reconstruction,” the university liaison office told The Santiago Times.

The liaison office further explained that it is cooperating with local authorities to help determine the source of the fire and the exact circumstances surrounding the incident, which also damaged a large part of the university math faculty building.

The church, which was built in 1846 as a lighthouse for sailors entering the coastal town and became a National Monument in 1983. According to authorities, it is now at risk of collapsing.

Firefighters have confirmed that the fire caused no casualties and did not affect neighbouring school Fray Luis Beltrán, though the school cancelled Friday classes as a preventative measure.

This is not the first time that the church has suffered extensive damage. The same year that it was declared a National Monument, a violent fire almost completely destroyed it. Following its restoration, another fire in 2010 severely damaged the iconic building.

The fire comes at a particularly unfortunate time this year. The church had almost completed renovations after an investment of almost US$5.9 million as part of the government’s US$ 80 million Bicentennial Legacy Program that involves nationwide investments in cultural sites.

President Sebastián Piñera and the Culture Minister Roberto Ampuero visited the church early July, having planned the re-inauguration of the church for early 2014.