Buddhist temple in Westminster destroyed in early-morning fire

By Monte Whaley and Kieran Nicholson, The Denver Post, Dec 6, 2011

WESTMINSTER, CO (USA) -- Brutal cold mixed with cold reality for members of the burned-out Lao Buddhist Temple of Colorado on Monday as they mourned the potential loss of artifacts saved by generations of worshippers.

<< Enduring bitter cold Monday morning, a Westminster firefighter battles a blaze at the Lao Buddhist Temple. The building was a total loss. (Steve Nehf, The Denver Post)

"It's not good, it's not good at all," said an exhausted Tom Pong as dusk fell over the remnants of the temple. "There is lots of history, over 100 years of it, and it could be lost forever."

Pieces charred or melted by the fire — which started just before 6 a.m. — included several Buddha figures. Worries about asbestos prevented Pong and other members of the temple from going inside to assess the damage.

The temple is part of an older building that the congregation bought in the early 1980s
Photos: Westminster temple destroyed by fire and then expanded on a 6-acre parcel at 10685 Dover St. The older section has asbestos, and the members have to take a crash course in hazardous-materials handling before they can be allowed in, Pong said.

"Hopefully, we can get in there sometime next week," he said.

At the end of the Vietnam War, monks from Laos brought over artifacts to the temple for worship, Pong said. Three monks were staying at the temple when it burned, including 77-year-old Ounkham Vennasack, who is recovering from smoke inhalation and minor burns.

Vennasack was taken to a hospital but was so worried about the fate of the temple, he refused to stay, Pong said.

Westminster Fire Department spokeswoman Diana M. Allen said the building is a total loss.

Unstable parts of the building were pulled down earlier in the day so that temple members could tend to the Buddha figures inside.

"Firefighters made an extra effort to respect the religious nature of the building," the department said Monday afternoon.

The cause of the fire has not been determined. As is standard procedure, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has joined the investigation.

"At this time, there is no reason to suspect the fire was intentionally set, but the fire is being fully investigated and is only in the preliminary stages," Westminster Fire said in an afternoon update.

Pong said about five monks are typically assigned to the temple, which serves from 300 to 400 families throughout the Denver metro area.

The temple passed a safety inspection last summer, but Westminster Fire said the building had no sprinklers or other modern fire-suppression systems.

Lynda Sipanya, who has ties to the temple, said members will provide shelter to the monks who had been staying there, while other Buddhist temples in the area were offering support to worshippers.

"We'll do what we can to provide help," Sipanya said. "We have a very tight community, and I can see already the response has been overwhelming."

She said temple members will try to salvage what artifacts they can.

"Some of the stuff can be replaced, others cannot," Sipanya said. "Some of it has been passed down from generation to generation. It's not just something you can find anywhere."