Major fire in El Centro, next to the cathedral, destroys portions of an historic seminary and chapel

Aug 16, 2012

A major fire in the heart of Cuenca’s historic district late Wednesday night destroyed part of Seminary San Luis and an adjacent chapel. The fire is being blamed on falling debris from a nearby fireworks show, according to fire department officials.

The seminary, next to the catedral, is one of three contiguous structures owned by the Catholic archdiocese that house several businesses on Calles Simon Bolivar and Benigno Malo, including the popular restaurants Raymi- pampa and Tutto Freddo. Ironically, the archdiocese and city of Cuenca had been planning restoration of the 100- to 200-year-old buildings.

According to a fire inspector, there appeared to be no damage to the cathedral except for several broken windows although he said a thorough assessment would be made in the coming days.

As of Thursday morning, smoke continued to rise from the seminary and streets near the scene were closed. Several fire units and dozens of police and soldiers remained nearby in case of flare-ups.

According to officials, the fire started about 10:00 p.m., apparently when firey debris from a fireworks show fell through an open portion of the seminary roof. The roof structure consists of wooden timbers and the fire spread quickly, first conuming most of the roof, then spreading to the interior of the building.

A guard at Tutto Freddo reported seeing a globo, or a small hot air balloon that was launched from the nearby flower market, fall toward the seminary roof and said smoke was visible shortly afterward. When it arrived on the scene, the fire department evacuated customers in Tutto Freddo and Raymipamba.

More than 280 firemen responded to the fire, including all units of Cuenca’s volunteer fire department and two units from nearby Azoguez

By 11:30, when the fire appeared to be contained, owners of businesses on Simon Bolivar were allowed into the building to retrieve valuables.

According to Luis Cabrera, Archbishop of Cuenca, who arrived on the scene about midnight, the fire consumed the chapel and a large part of the seminary. "This is a great loss to the city," Cabrera said, adding that the archdiocese will begin a detailed inspection of the property as soon as hot spots have cooled. He added that the church had just completed restoration work on 200 year old murals in the chapel.

Cabrera blamed fireworks for the blaze said he had spoken to several city officials at the scene about changing the law governing fireworks demonstrations. "Because of this we will not see anymore of these kinds of pyrotechnic shows in the historic district."

Cabrera also complained that a lack of water pressure hindered firefighting efforts. Fernando Figueroa, deputy fire chief, agreed and said the pressure drop was the result of the use of half a dozen hydrants in the area.

A fire department official said that most of the outer walls and masonry structure of the building appeared to be in intact. “As terrible as this is, it could have been worse. It did not spread beyond the chapel and seminary did not destroy the walls that front Calles Simon Bolivar and Malo.”

The fire is the second in the area in four years. In 2008 a fire destroyed the interior of a building half a block away, on the corner of Sucre and Aguirre. The building, which housed Carolina Bookstore, is currently undergoing restoration.

Credit: Photos courtesy of El Tiempo and El Mercurio.

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