Lightning Strikes;
Bethpage church among sites hit in storm

Copyright 2002 Newsday, Inc.
Newsday (New York, NY)...06/27/2002

By Andrew Ryan and Tom Demoretcky. STAFF WRITERS

The Rev. Mario Ancira has always said his church "is just a building; it's the people" who make it count.

He said it again as he sadly surveyed the damaged remains of his St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Bethpage, which erupted in flames after being struck by lightning last night.

The 80-year-old church was one of several buildings hit by lightning during an electrical storm that swept Nassau and most of Suffolk.

Bethpage Fire Chief Brian Wall said 14 firefighters were injured - half of them during a partial roof collapse - in fighting the fire at the church on Stewart Avenue. None of the injuries was serious, he said, although all were taken to hospitals for treatment.

"It was an aggressive fire that moved quickly," Wall said. He said the lightning bolt struck the church roof at about 6 p.m. and the fire started in an attic area and spread quickly. Wall added that because the church is across the street from the Bethpage firehouse, firefighters were there almost immediately.

The seven firefighters hurt in the collapse sustained burns and bruises from falling debris, Wall said. The others were felled by heat exhaustion. He added that 10 fire departments assisted Bethpage in fighting the fire, which was under control by about 7:30 p.m.

Danny Raskin, who lives across from the church, was looking out the window just before the strike.

"I turned away and the whole room lit up," Raskin, 44, said. "I've never seen lightning like that. Looking out the window I saw these bolts coming down."

He added that it was eight to 10 minutes before the fire became apparent after the lightning strike, and then "smoke poured out of the back of the church."

Ancira said the fire did severe damage to the altar, the pipe organ was ruined and the nave of the church was "pretty water-logged."

There were scattered reports of other lightning strikes and fires last night, most in the general area of the Nassau-Suffolk border. They included house fires in Melville and in Deer Park, with no injuries in either, according to fire officials.