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FIRE INVESTIGATION

Conclusions in conflict: State says Aurelius church fire was intentionally set, but county disagrees

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Half Acre Union Church in Aurelius was a more than century-old building on West Genesee Street Road, and the place of worship for a congregation of about 70. But Thursday, Nov. 5, 2015, a flame somehow sparked under the church's baptismal font, burning for some time through the solid oak base and eventually crawling up the sanctuary's wall and into the rafters. 

Just before 10 a.m., the Aurelius Fire Department was the first responding agency to the scene, working to put out the blaze. Firefighters and church members carried some of the pews out the front door, trying to save what they could. Between the damage to the chapel, and the discovery of asbestos in the walls of the back addition, the structure was deemed a total loss.

"It's a shame," Darryl Jirinec had told The Citizen in May last year. Jirinec is on the church's board of trustees. "It's just a little, old, white, wooden country church, but it still was kind of a landmark."

The church has plans to rebuild in the same location, and Jirinec said construction could start as early as April or May. But questions remain as to how the structure caught fire in the first place. With multiple investigations from multiple agencies, the conclusion remains unclear.

According to the state Office of Fire Prevention and Control investigation report, the landmark church may have been the victim of an incendiary fire. 

State fire investigators do not respond to every fire, but they were called to this one. Cayuga County fire investigators were unavailable, away at a training session in Montour Falls. So state investigators James Ryan, Gregory Amyot and their K-9 Shadow arrived that afternoon to figure out what happened.

According to the investigation report obtained in November 2016 by The Citizen through a Freedom of Information Law request, Ryan and Amyot conducted a "visual inspection of the building's exterior and interior, and the evaluation of fuel packages and fire patterns." They concluded that "there was no viable accidental or natural cause of the fire," adding that "the presence of incendiary fire indicators, and considering the totality of the circumstances surrounding the incident; the cause of the fire was classified as incendiary." The term incendiary refers to an intentionally set fire, where the person knows it should not be set. The office does not use the term arson, which refers to the actual crime of setting an intentional fire. 

The Cayuga County Sheriff's Office conducted an investigation of its own, but it did not reach the same conclusion. Detective Lt. Brian Schenck and Detective Sgt. Fred Cornelius said the cause of the fire is undetermined, and do not feel there's enough evidence to warrant a criminal investigation. The sheriff's office officially closed the case in March 2016.

Church board members and Pastor Harry Dow said they knew that there were discrepancies between the two reports, but Dow told The Citizen in a phone interview in February that he did not know the state's report had determined the fire was set intentionally. But after reviewing the report and conferring with the trustees, Dow said the church had no concerns.

"From the perspective of the trustees, we have nothing to say in response to the state level of the report," Dow said.

The state's report walks through several hypotheses investigators examined including checking cooking equipment, heating systems, electrical wiring, appliances, smoking materials, flammable liquids and even the weather forecast. Determining that none of those were the cause, the report lists reasons why investigators believe the fire was incendiary.

Shadow, who is trained to detect ignitable liquids, alerted investigators to two locations in the church, both in the area of the baptismal font where the fire originated. Investigators said they observed charring on the floor and V-shaped burns or grooves between the floorboards indicative of ignitable liquids. After sending in four pieces of carpet to the New York State Police Crime Lab, results showed the presence of terpene.

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Aurelius church fire

A state fire investigation photo shows the remnants of the Half Acre Union Church in Aurelius' baptismal font and the origin of the fire.

Terpene is a component of resin and turpentine, both flammable liquids. But the Cayuga County Sheriff's Office said that terpene is also naturally occurring in wood. With the church being a wooden structure and without more evidence, Schenck and Cornelius said, there's not enough there to investigate. Cornelius also observed the patterns on the floor. Organ chimes hanging above the baptismal font had been burned off the wall and fallen to the floor during the fire.

"Placing the chimes into these indentations, it becomes apparent that the wall behind the baptismal font that held the chimes was impinged on by the fire causing the chimes to fall and splay out on the floor," Cornelius wrote in the report. "In my opinion this casts some doubt on the theory that the pattern on the floor was a result of a poured accelerant."

State investigators also thought an ignitable liquid was used because there was no apparent heat source in the area, and the fire developed and grew beyond the fuel load that was present. Amyot and Ryan cited the National Fire Protection Association, which says, "when the fire damage at the origin is inconsistent with the known or reported fuel load, limited rates of heat release, or limited potentially accidental ignition sources, the fire may be incendiary."

Cornelius, however, said he did find the potential for a heat source. A thermostat on the wall, he discovered, was a brand that had been recalled for their history of malfunctioning and causing fires. Though the model was not the same as those that were recalled, Cornelius said in his report that he took the thermostat to a local electrician "to attempt to determine if a short in the low voltage wire would be enough to cause a fire. The electrical short in the low voltage wire we tested did cause a spark, however, the transformer burned out quickly if the electrical short was constant and not intermittent."

The wire to the thermostat ran down the wall behind the baptismal font and through the floor. Cornelius observed that the wire traveled under the carpet in a high foot-traffic area.

The state fire investigators did address the thermostat in their report, noting that the church's furnace had not been working properly the Sunday before the fire. The report said Wayne Hoskins, a church board member, had turned off the power to the unit on Tuesday, but it was not clear if it had been turned back on. Investigators observed fire damage to the wire, but they also noted its intact cloth insulation near the the thermostat itself. They did not feel it could have been a cause.

Because the furnace was not working, John Chick of Auburn had been hired by the church to take a look and install a new high limit switch. Chick had been in the church basement that Thursday morning, and he's the one who discovered the fire.

Chick told The Citizen he'd collected his tools and as he was setting up in the basement, he heard a noise upstairs. With no door into the chapel from the basement, Chick said he emerged outside to see if there were any cars in the parking lot. When he saw none, he went back into the basement. 

But when he went back down, he heard another noise upstairs, so he called Hoskins. Hoskins told Chick that no one else was supposed to be in the building. 

"When I came back out, flames, smoke was coming out of the windows," Chick said. "I got to my truck, and it was coming through the top of the roof."

Chick called 911. He stuck around that morning, he said, talking to investigators. A past fire chief for the town of Throop, Chick guesses the fire started some time before he got there, smoldering before it broke through to the ceiling. 

State fire investigators and sheriff's officers interviewed Chick multiple times. Chick has a criminal record, having served one year in federal prison after he was convicted for illegal asbestos removal as a Cayuga County employee. He pleaded guilty in 2007 to violating the Clean Air Act, and along with time served paid $108,000 in restitution. A spokesperson for the state OFPS said the investigators were concerned about Chick being there at the time of the fire, but said it's up to law enforcement to follow up with a criminal investigation.

Schenck and Cornelius said they talked to Chick multiple times, and "he was more than cooperative throughout the investigation."

"Chick's history did not have any specific bearing on our investigation," Schenck added in an email to The Citizen. They "did not find any reason to question his credibility." 

State investigators also said they were concerned with the remote location of the fire and how it occurred out of view from the outside. It was not clear if the building was secure, either. Hoskins told investigators that the rear door of the church had been left unlocked in the past. 

Though not listed as an incendiary indicator, the state and sheriff's reports note that the church's fire alarm system was offline and no smoke detectors were found in the building. 

"This system was reported not to be in a monitored status by the provider," the state's report said. "The church members believed the system was working and being monitored by the provider."

Cornelius said the church had been paying for the alarm system, but it was not communicating with the monitoring company at the time of the fire. He added that this didn't factor into a decision about whether to conduct a criminal investigation. 

The church's insurance provider, Preferred Mutual, sent out a fire investigator to conduct its own analysis of what happened. According to the sheriff's office fire report, the insurance company's fire investigators were not able to find evidence of an electrical cause to the fire, and listed its cause as undetermined. The company did not respond to The Citizen's requests for comment. While the church did receive funds for its loss, Preferred Mutual dropped it from its coverage. 

Acknowledging the state's conclusion, Cornelius wrote that considering the chime patterns on the floor, the lack of motive, the trouble with the furnace, the thermostat wire running under the carpet and the recalls of similar thermostats, all of those things "casts some doubt on the incendiary determination." Cornelius and Schenck added that in their follow-up interviews they did not find any witnesses or suspicious activity in the building.

In a phone interview with The Citizen officials with the state OFPC said the agency stands by its decision and findings. But, they added, according to law, the first responding fire department determines the official cause of the fire. The state's report is one of the tools to help determine the cause for that department.

Robert Thurston was the chief of the Aurelius Fire Department at the time. He's since moved to the Union Springs Fire Department, and said when he'd left, the cause had still not been determined. He said because he's no longer part of the Aurelius Fire Department he could not comment on anything that happened that day.

Current Aurelius Fire Chief Jason Wells had told The Citizen in December that he would search for the fire report. He did not return The Citizen's multiple follow-up calls.

Cornelius and Schenck said they were not aware of what the fire department had determined, but they stood by their conclusion to not pursue a criminal investigation.

"We have a tremendous amount of respect for the guys at state fire," Cornelius said. "Sometimes people look at different things from different angles, but really, we're just saying there's not enough evidence."

Though the investigation is closed, Cornelius said that could always change.

"We always entertain the idea that we'll look at something if there's more information that arises," he added. "We'll take a look at it."

Staff writer Gwendolyn Craig can be reached at (315) 282-2237 or gwendolyn.craig@lee.net. Follow her on Twitter @gwendolynnn1.

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