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Wednesday, 19 December, 2001, 15:53 GMT
Fire damages 'priceless' works
A fireman surveys the damage to St John the Divine in New York
The blaze destroyed a section of the building
Staff at the New York cathedral hit by a massive fire only a week before Christmas say two "priceless" 17th Century tapestries were severely damaged in the blaze.

Hundreds of firefighters managed to stop flames several storeys high from spreading to the main structure of the building after fire broke out in the cathedral's gift shop on Tuesday.

I have been down on Ground Zero with the bishop, smelled the same kind of smell - ashes

Archdeacon Michael Kendall

Church official Jere Farrah said the tapestries were torn apart by the force of the water hoses.

They are part of the Barberini collection of twelve tapestries which depict scenes from the life of Christ and were woven on the Pope's official looms.

Cathedral staff are waiting to hear whether the building will be safe for Christmas services, each of which typically draws around 5,000 people.

The fire destroyed sections of the cathedral and left smoke and water damage in its wake.

A fireman surveys the damage to St John the Divine in New York
Firemen stopped the blaze from spreading
Part of the roof of the three-story gift shop caved in, but no casualties were reported.

The BBC's Malcolm Brabant says the fire comes as another blow to the spirit of New Yorkers, still reeling from the 11 September terror attacks and the plane crash in the borough of Queens.

"I have been down on Ground Zero with the bishop a lot, smelled the same kind of smell - ashes - and here we are, we are bound with the city and we will all make it," said Archdeacon Michael Kendall.

More trauma

Locals watched incredulously while the fire raged, sending thick black smoke billowing over Manhattan yet again.

"We were crying," said Margaret Hurwitz, who was outside the building with her 12-year-old son.

cathedral fire
Smoke and flames were once again visible across the city
"After the World Trade towers, you want something to be secure.

"This is where we came that day."

The cause of the blaze is under investigation.

The construction of St John's first started in 1892, but the cathedral has never been finished and work continues to this day.

It is the mother church of the Episcopal Diocese of New York and the seat of its bishop.

The BBC's Jane Standley reports from New York
"Within two and a half hours the fire was under control"
See also:

18 Dec 01 | Americas
New York's unfinished cathedral
18 Dec 01 | Americas
In pictures: NY cathedral fire
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