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Cobble Hill church mourns after lightning strike leads to death of passerby and threatens building's future

Christ Church-Cobble Hill is considered the oldest and tallest building in the neighborhood, and has been hit by lightning several times. Until Thursday night, however, damage caused by lightning strikes had never claimed a life.

Lightning from Thursday's electrical storm is blamed for the death of Cobble Hill resident Richard Schwartz and for significant structural damage to church, at the southwest corner of Clinton and Kane streets. Schwartz was walking under the scaffolding on the Kane Street side of the church when lightning hit the building's tower, causing masonry and the scaffolding to collapse. The falling debris hit Mr. Schwartz, who was taken to Long Island College Hospital where he was pronounced dead.

The community, Borough President Marty Markowitz and the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island are mourning Mr. Schwartz, who was for many years an assistant attorney general in the office of the state attorney general.

The church, viewed from the corner of Kane and Clinton streets, on Friday. Photo by Trudy Whitman

On Friday, police tape and blockades cordoned off an area almost two blocks wide, from the south side of Kane Street and Tompkins Place, to the south side of Kane Street going west from Clinton Street.

The Very Rev. Ronald T. Lau, rector of Christ Church and a community leader, told a group of reporters Friday morning near the church that scaffolding had been erected within the past month for renovations that were starting. Demonstrating grace under pressure and grief, Fr. Lau pointed out to reporters that being neither an engineer nor architect, he couldn’t answer question related to the status of the structure.

He referred the press to a diocesan spokesman, the Rev. John Betit, who is Canon to the Ordinary at the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island, headquartered in Garden City. As Canon to the Ordinary, Betit serves as assistant to Bishop Lawrence Provenzano.

Canon Betit explained, during a phone interview with the Brooklyn Eagle on Friday afternoon, that engineers, insurance adjusters and others are still in the process of analyzing the impact of this disaster.

“Until those professional evaluators have submitted a final statement, it’s hard to know how that all will be handled,” he said. Although Canon Betit could not give a time frame on the damage assessment, he did articulate the Diocese’s priority.

“In terms of the city engineers, I think that their main focus is going to be the immediate disaster situation, the safety issues to the neighborhood. That is certainly the Diocese’s priority at this time.

"Basically, they’re going to be evaluating what the damage has done to the integrity to that part of the building. Not being an engineer, I am not able to speak to that. But I am relying on our city engineers, and our people on the ground, and also the engineer from the insurance company, to help come up with an evaluation that we can understand and talk about intelligently.”

Most important to the Bishop at present, said Canon Betit, was helping the community in its grief.

Canon Betit explained that, in addition to prayers and condolences, and a statement to all Episcopal parishes in the diocese to pray for Mr. Schwartz and his family, the Bishop is organizing a system of outreach to the community.

“Bishop Provenzano himself would really like to find a way to express sympathy personally to the family. Our need to want to do that has to be balanced with their need to want to have a conversation with us. That would be our hope, to find a way to make a personal connection with the family.”

Canon Betit added that “Fr. Lau is assisting us in identifying a way for us to have a personal conversation with the immediate survivors.”Broken masonry and scaffold littered the ground on the Kane Street side of church on Friday. Eagle photo

Canon Betit said that Bishop Provenzano will come to Cobble Hill. “We express our condolence to friends and family of Mr. Schwartz. The Bishop is standing with — not just the church community but the Cobble Hill community and the Heights community to express his deep sadness.” 

Borough President Marty Markowitz issued a statement of condolence.

“All of Brooklyn is deeply saddened over the passing of Cobble Hill resident Richard Schwartz, who was struck by falling debris at Christ Church during last night’s storms, just a short distance from his home," Markowitz said. "His passing is an unfortunate reminder about the destructive force of nature and the need for all of us to always be prepared and vigilant. Mr. Schwartz admirably served New York State for more than 25 years as an assistant attorney general in the AG’s office, and I know New Yorkers, his colleagues and the law community will greatly miss his expertise and dedication. Most of all, our thoughts and prayers go out to his family and friends during this very difficult time.”

Father Lau told the Eagle, “I belong to a religion of hope and Resurrection. And that is how we will move forward into the future.

"This is not the worst calamity that has happened to this building. The fire of 1939 was far more devastating. This is a very tight-knit, tough congregation. And they will come together and move forward for the future.

"There is a difference between a church of the building, and a church of the people who worship in the building. And my principal concern is the church of the people here who make up this the community; and our larger community, which includes many of our neighbors and our partnerships."

He said that "in a given week, over a thousand people use the building.”

During the summer, Christ Church has been holding its Sunday services in the air conditioned Parish Hall or the church garden. This coming Sunday, services will be held at nearby St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, which is at Clinton and Carroll streets.

CORRECTED SAT 10:40 PM to reflect Canon Betit's reference to Bishop Provenzano coming to Cobble Hill. (Original version referenced Fr. Lau.)

July 27, 2012 - 4:44pm


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