By Jennifer Baker, The Cincinnati Enquirer
MONROE, Ohio - Monroe fire officials set damage at $700,000 after lighting struck and burned down a 62-foot-high Jesus Christ statue and an adjacent amphitheater at Solid Rock Church late Monday.
Church leaders are vowing to rebuild the iconic "King of Kings" statue - also dubbed "Touchdown Jesus" - which alone was valued at $300,000.
Monroe Fire Capt. Richard Mascarella said the other $400,000 in damage was to the amphitheater when flames from the sculpture spread to the back wall and roof.
"The heat coming off the statue singed the entire back wall of the amphitheater and burned through it," Mascarella said. "Portions of the roof are destroyed, so they will have to replace a large part of it."
A pond surrounding the statue that used to be full of fish is now filled with remnants of the structure, made of fiber glass and foam. All the fish are either dead or dying, Mascarella said.
Church leaders also plan to repair the amphitheater and the pond and the structures were all insured. Insurance adjusters were expected at the site Tuesday afternoon.
The fire is not suspicious. It was ignited about 11:15 p.m. Monday during a severe thunderstorm that spawned lighting across the Greater Cincinnati region, Mascarella said.
John Centers, a Monroe assistant fire chief who lives about a mile from the church, said he was outside on his deck watching Monday night's storm when he saw a very bright flash of lightning accompanied by loud thunderclap. At first, he didn't think much of it, "because there had already been so many ground strikes that night," Centers said. But he could tell that the lightning had struck fairly close by and "it was a very significant ground strike."
"The pattern of light flashed all the way to the ground," and was in the general direction of the church, Centers said.
He soon realized that must have been the lightning that struck the statue because within four minutes of his witnessing the strike, firefighters were being called to the blazing statue.
And it burned quickly: "It burned to the ground. The whole statue is gone," said Kim Peace, a police dispatcher.
Authorities on Tuesday were urging motorists to resist the temptation to stop on Interstate 75 and snap photos, fearing that drivers pulling on and off the berm could cause crashes.
The Ohio State Highway Patrol is issuing warnings to those who stop -- and will soon start writing citations, a dispatcher for the patrol's Lebanon post said.
The number of warnings written so far was not immediately available.
The large "King of Kings" statue was a Butler County landmark since it was erected in 2004 outside Solid Rock Church, 904 N. Union Rd., along northbound Interstate 75 in Monroe, just north of the Ohio 63 exit.
Fire crews were called to the church at 11:15 p.m. Monday after several people phoned 911 to report the blaze as a severe thunderstorm swept through Greater Cincinnati, producing a spectacular lightning show, Peace said.
"The lightning was just amazing," she said, wryly adding: "It was a lot of fun in here last night."
When fire crews arrived, they found the statue fully involved and an adjacent amphitheater burning. The fire extended into the attic of the amphitheater, destroyed equipment, before fire crews contained it, Peace said.
No one was injured.
There were grounding devices built into the structure, Neu said.
"Everything around the structure and even the structure itself has lightning resistors and grounding rods," but he added that the unpredictable nature of lightning doesn't make those devices entirely effective.
The sculpture stretches 40 feet wide at the base. It was made of plastic form and fiberglass over a steel frame. The frame is the only thing visible this morning.
According to the evangelical church's website, there are about 4,000 members. The church was founded by former horse trader Lawrence and Darlene Bishop of Middletown.
The Cincinnati Enquirer