The Apia Samoa Temple was destroyed by fire July 9, marking the first time in Church history a functioning temple has burned.
"It's devastating," said Richard Chadderton, a Church employee who witnessed the blaze.
The 20-year-old temple was being renovated and expanded to add a baptismal font and was scheduled to be rededicated in December. While the cause of the blaze is still unknown, authorities think it might be related to the construction project, said Paul E. Koelliker, managing director of the Church's Temple Department.
Brother Chadderton, manager of the Presiding Bishopric Office's Service Center on the island, was on his way to the nearby temple patron housing area about 7: 25 p.m. when he heard people yelling and screaming outside the temple.
"I saw smoke swirling around the temple," Brother Chadderton said, adding that the glow of flames could be seen inside the temple's celestial room.
People with water-filled buckets made an effort to slow the blaze, he said. Fire crews reportedly arrived some 10 to 15 minutes later. But the fire burned rapidly, soon engulfing the entire temple in flames.
As the fire burned, Brother Chadderton said he could hear a series of popping sounds coming from a construction area near the front of the building.
When contacted by the Church News the morning after the fire, Brother Chadderton said the cause of the blaze was still being determined. The building had been secured in the aftermath of the blaze and there were no reports of injuries. The fire did not spread to any of the neighboring buildings.
A number of people living near the temple grounds witnessed the fire. "There was a lot of crying," Brother Chadderton said.
Full extent of the damage to the temple was unknown at press time. A large section of the roof was destroyed, "but the Angel Moroni [statue] was still standing," Brother Chadderton said.
He also expressed sadness for the paintings and "precious things" inside the temple's celestial room that were likely lost in the fire.
Like many on the island, Queenah Va'aulu, 17, has a soft spot for the temple. She has participated in baptisms for the dead in the temple font and could see the edifice from her nearby residence. She'll forever remember the scene of the burning Apia Samoa Temple.
"It was sad, we saw it," said Queenah, a young woman in the Pesega 5th Ward, Pesega Samoa Stake. "[The temple] went completely up in flames."
She also thinks of the faces of the other witnesses. "A lot of them were crying."
News of the fire also spread throughout the Salt Lake Valley to Church members with ties to Samoa. Percy J. Rivers, first counselor in the initial 1983 temple presidency and a Church pioneer in Samoa, said news of the destruction was "quite a blow" to his entire family.
With his wife, Helen, he recalled members working to build the temple in Samoa and then traveling from other islands to do temple work. "They were very keen with the temple," he said.
"I have a sick feeling in my stomach still," said Sister Rivers. "It is really sad for us."
Brother Koelliker said the Church was in the process of expanding the temple baptistry, which had a smaller font than most temples. Space was also being added to the temple foyer and offices. The exterior of the project had been completed, and crews were working on the interior of the addition, he said.
While Church leaders "are still early in discovering what happened," he said, it may be a complete loss. "I think all of our buildings, particularly those that are in a form of reconstruction or renovation, are subject to some risk," he said. "We have to have the perspective that accidents happen."
However, he said, not since the Nauvoo Temple was burned by an arsonist in 1848 after early Church members had abandoned Nauvoo, has a temple been destroyed by fire.
Announced in 1977, the Samoa Temple's design was later revised and included in the historic 1980 announcement of the first seven small, international temples. Located on a 1.7-acre site near a Church school and the Church's mission home in Pesega, Samoa, the temple was completed in 1983 and dedicated by President Gordon B. Hinckley, then a counselor in the First Presidency. The temple featured a modern design with a masonry exterior finish over concrete block and a cedar shake shingle roof. Total floor space was 14,560 square feet.
Brother Koelliker said it is expected that the Samoa temple will be rebuilt, but that decision will be made later by the First Presidency.
Leonard Ahmu, who lives in American Samoa, said the land on which the Apia Samoa Temple stands has long been sacred to his family.
His grandfather Ahmu donated land to the Church years ago where the temple was eventually built. Brother Leonard Ahmu himself witnessed the temple's groundbreaking ceremony, lent his muscle to help build the sacred building and later participated in the dedication of Samoa's first and only temple.
He remembers the 1983 temple dedication as being one of the happiest moments of his life. Those memories turned bittersweet when he learned of the July 9 fire.
"It is devastating, I can't believe it," Brother Ahmu said.
Despite his pain, Brother Ahmu says he is optimistic about the future. Samoans are a resilient, faithful people who have endured hardship, he said. As recently as 1991, Samoan members suffered significant property damage and the death of one of their own during tropical storms. Now the people will have to endure not having a temple in their land for the first time in almost two decades.
"I hope — if and when the Church decides to rebuild — that [the Samoan people] will rededicate themselves to really doing the Lord's work," Brother Ahmu said.