A faulty furnace pipe may have been the cause of a fire that gutted a historic Yaphank church early Sunday morning, church officials said.
Yaphank Fire Department Chief Chris Austin said nine departments, including some 75 firefighters responded to the blaze about 2 a.m. at Yaphank Presbyterian Church, 65 Main St.
It took firefighters nearly 21/2 to get the fire under control at the church built in 1851, Austin said.
"It's completely gutted in the back, the inside of the building is completely burned," Austin said, adding that the church's front steeple remained "intact" despite some fire damage.
Suffolk County's Arson Squad and the Brookhaven Town Fire Marshall are investigating the cause, Austin said.
But fire investigators told church members that after a preliminary review, the likely cause of the fire were old furnace pipes that ignited, said Pastor Glorya Johnson. A hole in the pipe allowed heat to escape, igniting the floor boards, Johnson said.
Suffolk police said in a news release that the cause of the fire was noncriminal.
"I'm just thankful it wasn't arson," Johnson said. "It would be very difficult to forgive someone for something like that."
Parishioners worshipped at a 9. m. church service in a building behind the burned out shell, which has a gaping blackened hole in the back. Charred, soggy pages of hymnals lay scattered outside the church.
After the service, members lingered over coffee, remembering the stained glass windows that generations of families had donated in memory of loved ones, the organ that was right underneath the center of the blaze and the piano that was tuned only a few days before.
Johnson said it is "a time of grieving . . . People are devastated."
Marjorie Nicodemus, 78 of Shirley, said she came to the church this morning to put up the hymn numbers and practice the organ, which she plays.
"I went into shock," said Nicodemus, who has worshipped there for more than 40 years. "I got out of the car and started crying."
Just the night before, members of the church served coffee and tea to Yaphank's annual Christmas parade, which went right by the church. The church's float Saturday night was a four-foot tall replica of the church. It got fourth place, out of 74 entries, said Stanley Patrick, 62 of Centereach.
"It's devastation," said his wife, Sandy Patrick, 62. "It's horrible."
Johnson said it was too early to know if the building could be saved.
Ultimately, though, she said, "the building is just a symbol. The community of faith is the church."
Sandy Patrick agreed, saying: "It's just a building. We're the church."
Kathy Tuthill, 59, of Selden, said her 5 year old granddaughter, Crystal Montoya of Selden, was set to perform the Christmas pageant on Dec. 21 in the church. Tuthill said she's thankful there's a back building, where the pageant will go on, and Crystal can sing her solo, "Joy to the World."
Johnson said graffiti was found on some of the walls of the church about two days ago but is apparently unrelated to the fire. Other buildings in Yaphank had similar graffiti, police said.