By JOHN T. WARD
A cracked timber in the steeple has forced the temporary closure of the landmark First Presbyterian Church at Tower Hill in Red Bank.
Borough officials ordered the church and an adjoining school closed Tuesday morning after structural engineers could not rule out a catastrophic collapse of the 70-foot tall steeple, said construction official Stanley Sickels.
“In these situations, you either get to see it before it collapses or after,” he said. “There’s no way of knowing” what might trigger a failure.
The discovery prompted the shutdown of the Tower Hill School, as well as the relocation of Sunday services and community group meetings that serve hundreds of congregants and visitors each week, church property manager Rob Wallman tells redbankgreen. It could also derail a wedding planned for next week.
The issue is a lengthwise crack along a bolt line on a 12-by-4 inch timber that’s part of a warren truss, a diagonal support with the steeple, which was built in 1952, said Wallman.
The support structure “is very strong, but when one component fails, it throws loads onto other components,” Wallman said. “We want to play it safe.”
Sickels, who also serves as borough administrator and fire marshal, said wind, rain or the failure of another component stressed by the crack cause the steeple to collapse.
Though the school is considered a safe distance from the steeple, a collapse could flatten the church itself, leading to a domino effect on the school, Sickels said.
Drawings for a plan to encase the timber in steel are being readied for borough approval, with the aim of reopening the church by Sunday, November 10, Wallman said.
Sickels said the town was awaiting those plans, as well as applications for welding and other necessary permits, and declined to speculate if the work could be finished by November 10.
The following day, students had been scheduled to return to school after a four-day weekend, thanks to a teachers’ conference, Wallman said.
Meanwhile, this Sunday’s church services will be consolidated into a single service at 1 p.m. at the United Methodist Church, also in Red Bank, Wallman said.
Dozens of group meetings for organizations such as the Boy Scouts and Alcoholics Anonymous have to be canceled or moved.
There’s also a wedding scheduled for Friday, November 8 that Wallman isn’t sure is going to happen at the church as planned.
Wallman said he discovered the damage after tracking the source of a leak above the choir loft to the steeple, where he found that the six-foot-long timber was splitting.
He speculated that a recent northeaster had caused the crack, which was not evident after either Hurricane Irene or Hurricane Sandy. Wallman said he usually climbs up into the structure to inspect it every two months, but hadn’t been inside for three months when he found the damage.
The steeple is designed to be realigned with tension rods when it gets knocked out of true vertical.
Fire department representatives happened to be underneath the steeple doing a fire safety program for children when Wallman reported the damage and advised that the kids be removed, Sickels said.
The church has asked that a firetruck with a water-charged hose be on hand as a additional precaution when the welding repairs are made, Wallman said.