Sacred Heart Church Fire Ruled ‘Accidental’

Officials: Blaze Began in Junction Box

Augusta Levy Learning Center employees embrace after salvaging what they could from the building on Saturday. From left are Executive Director Angie Wood, Outreach Coordinator Haley Rush and founder Kathy Shapell. Photo by Alan Olson

WHEELING — Wheeling Fire Department investigators have ruled Saturday’s blaze at the former Sacred Heart Church as accidental in nature.

“Investigators determined the fire started in an electrical junction box mounted in the ceiling on the northeast corner of the building,” spokesman Philip Stahl said today.

Meanwhile, Stahl estimated it could take “seven figures” to repair fire damage at the former church, which housed the Augusta Levy Learning Center. But the autism center is expected to be up and running with temporary in-home therapy as early as Tuesday.

“This fire happened right before the children were scheduled to come back from a two week summer break,” said Angie Wood, Augusta Levy’s executive director. “So, it is even more important we get them back into their normal routine and back into therapy to maintain their skills.”

Augusta Levy serves 21 children with autism from across the tri-state area and employs 35 staff members.

Wood said it is the largest research-based program for children with autism in West Virginia.

The center canceled therapy sessions for today, but all children will receive in-home therapy starting Tuesday, said Wood.

“The fire was a complete devastation to our families,” said Mandi Cook whose daughter, Addison, has been enrolled at the center since 2016. “The staff at Augusta Levy are amazing and care for our children as much as we do. They do amazing work every day at the center.

“The fire happened on Saturday and they’re already trying to work out a plan to continue to provide services for our children, which they greatly need,” she said.

Several other parents echoed similar praise for the center’s efforts to get the autism programs back on track.

“The thought of halting therapy due to the fire was honestly a bit scary, so we are thankful for the temporary home therapy solution,” said Suzanne Gaiser whose daughter, Adelynn, has been enrolled since October 2017.

Heather Kovalski said her son, Landon, has been attending the center since October 2011.

“Continued therapy means continued progress,” said Kovalski. “Without therapy, our children will likely plateau, at best, or start losing skills. It’s crucial they get services as soon as possible.

“Routine is super important for our children to continue building skills, but also to maintain what they have accomplished,” she said.

Wood said the center is grateful for the number of people who have reached out to help it maintain its services.

“Community has been outstanding,” said Wood. “Everyone is trying to help. We just need to make a plan.”

Staci Stephen, Augusta Levy’s director of development, said the center’s main focus will be finding a permanent place to call home. She also said Wheeling Mayor Glenn Elliott has given the center a space for administrators to meet as they assess short- and long-term needs.

“We are looking forward to getting into a new space to get them acclimated,” said Stephen. “Therapists are great at working with the kids, so it should be an easy transition into a new space.”

The fire that broke out about 9 a.m. Saturday severely damaged the center at 99 Main St. The building is the former Sacred Heart Church, and fire officials said shortly after the two-alarm blaze that they believe it started in the belltower. In addition to fire and smoke damage, the building was flooded with standing water after firefighters from the Wheeling and Cumberland Trail fire departments fought to put it out.

“It will take seven figures to get the building up and running,” Stahl said. “(Augusta Levy) had substantial water damage.”

Damage took its toll throughout the structure.

“The roof collapsed, so the ceiling was on the floor and shelves had fallen off the walls,” said Stephen. “There was at least 6 inches of water, and it was worse the further in you went, so I don’t even want to know how much was in my office.”

Wood said Augusta Levy does have insurance to cover fire damage. She also said the center will learn more about how extensive the damage is when Panhandle Cleaning & Restoration starts recovery efforts today.

Fire crews were able to get out children’s program books and office staff files, and those are already with Panhandle Cleaning to remove the smoke smell, said Stephen. But Wood said some of the sensory equipment, including five sensory swings, was stored upstairs and is likely a loss.

Although Wood said the center appreciates efforts to make donations, she said it has to turn them away until it can see what it can salvage and arrange to have a place for people to drop off items. She also said the center had to shut down a Go Fund Me page from a well-intended supporter until it is able to assess its needs.

That may take some time, as the center takes stock of what happened over the weekend.

“We are still in shock,” said Wood. “We keep saying, ‘Our center can’t be gone.’ We are taking things step by step.”