The Angel Moroni statue atop the fire-devastated Apia Samoa Temple still stands as a symbol of hope that a new temple will again grace this Pacific Island nation.
Fire destroyed the temple July 9, the first time in Church history an operational temple has burned. The First Presidency announced July 16 that the Church would rebuild the temple, utilizing a more recent temple design.
"There are a lot of people in Samoa who are feeling so devastated, absolutely devastated," said Elder Ronald T. Halverson of the Seventy and president of the Pacific Islands Area. "Those in the United States who have a connection with the temple are also feeling a significant loss."
Elder Halverson said the cause of the fire was still unknown.
The blaze might have been related to an ongoing renovation at the temple to expand the baptistry, foyer and offices. However, Elder Halverson said it is still too early to speculate. The temple was closed but scheduled to reopen after a late-year re-dedication.
Witnesses to the fire said it broke through the roof in the southwest corner of the temple, away from the area under construction, said Elder Jerry King, a public affairs missionary in the Church's Pacific Islands Area. Furniture, moved from the construction area and stored in other areas of the temple, might have "added kindling to the fire," he said.
No one was injured in the fire and no temple records, which had been removed before the renovation work began, were destroyed.
"The Lord has meaning in all things," said Elder Halverson. "Meaning will come in time as things are made clearer."
Until then, Church leaders are counseling members to "remain faithful and continue on with the work," said President Sapele T. Fa'alogo of the Pesega Samoa Stake.
"Whilst we are saddened by this event, we will move forward as individuals, families and as a Church in Samoa with optimism and faith," he said.
President Fa'alogo also expressed gratitude for the outpouring of support from the community and for the efforts of firefighters and police; three fire trucks and more than 100 volunteers battled the flames that engulfed the entire 14,000-square-foot building within 45 minutes.
"There is a great deal of sadness out there, but at the same time they fully realize that they have to continue on with the Lord's work, no matter what," he said.
He recalled, with emotion, Primary children singing, "I Love to See the Temple," the Sunday after the fire and of hearing one child who earnestly prayed for the temple.
"You can see the sadness [in the children's] eyes," he said. However, he added, "there is hope in all the despair that has come out."
President Fa'alogo said members see Angel Moroni as a symbol that a new temple will again stand on the devastated temple site.
Temple President Daniel A. Betham recalled watching the fire and staring through the darkness at the temple's blackened remains. However, he said, in the morning's first light, the Angel Moroni shined forth gold, not black.
"To us, that is a miracle," he said.
Members in the country are hoping and praying that the new temple will be built quickly. To complete the new temple will require six months of planning, followed by a 18- to 24-month construction period. Plans for the reconstruction will follow the design of recent temples and implement more efficient use of space and resources, according to a Church press release. The proposed design will include more than 16,000-square-feet and a fire prevention sprinkling system now required by current building codes.
President Betham explained that to attend the Apia Samoa Temple, Latter-day Saints paid a $2 bus fair. Now, he said, it will cost an estimated $1,000 to travel to the Suva Fiji Temple. Travel to temples in Tonga, Hawaii and New Zealand could cost even more, he said.
Many weddings were planned to be held as soon as the temple re-opened, he said.
Missionaries serving in the temple, many of them Samoans from the United States, don't know yet if they will be sent home or reassigned, he said.
President Betham said he has seen an outpouring of support from religious and community leaders in the country, who seem to understand what the temple meant to local members. The Methodist Church sent a letter and a check to help rebuild the sacred structure. The deputy prime minister shared his grief with Latter-day Saints. And an editorial in the Samoa Observer bore the headline, "Destruction of temple at Pesega a tragedy for everyone."
"The temple was not only important to the saints themselves, but to members of other churches, . . ." said President Betham. "Samoa is a very religious place. To them the Mormon temple was just as important as their own church buildings."
Many members of other churches gathered with members — some who traveled from villages miles away — on the temple grounds the night of the fire, "all eyes fixed on the horrific scene of the flames rising through the roof of the temple," said Elder King. Some tried to fight the 7 p.m. fire with small extinguishers and buckets; however, for safety reasons they soon had to abandon their efforts.
"The inferno was roaring, filling the skies with flames, burning embers and huge billows of black smoke," said Elder King, who witnessed the scene.
By 1 a.m., fire crews had done what they could, but members and others begged them to stay at the scene and watch the embers, said President Betham. "People would say, 'Go back, you can't leave.' That is the kind of spirit in Samoa."
President Betham also said members in Samoa are grateful the fire did not spread to other Church buildings on the site, including the mission home, a service center, a meetinghouse, temple patron and missionary housing and the Church's College of Western Samoa. A sudden downpour of rain stopped the spread of the fire, he said.
"The Lord had a hand in making sure the fire didn't spread," he said. "The fire workers couldn't do much in putting the fire out; the water pressure was low. They didn't have enough water. It was the rain that helped them."
The fire marked the first time in Church history an operational temple has been destroyed. The abandoned Nauvoo Temple was destroyed by an arsonist in November 1848 and lightning ignited the top of the St. George Temple in August 1878, destroying the steeple before being extinguished by rain. Fire caused about $100,000 damage to the Logan Temple in 1917.
Announced in 1977, the Samoa Temple had a design that was later revised and included in the historic 1980 announcement of the first seven small, international temples. Located on a 1.7-acre site, 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.
The First Presidency encouraged Church members who wish to make a modest contribution to support the reconstruction of the temple to do so through their local wards and branches. Members can check "other" on their tithing slip and write "Samoa Temple Fund."
Aliitasi Talataina, who was planning to attend the rededicated temple with her son before his mission, prayed for the temple during the fire. "The fire was so large, I looked at the Angel Moroni [statue], and said, 'Are you going to leave us?' "
"We feel a big emptiness," said Elder King. "I pray that the people of Samoa will nurture their faith. Where there is faith there is hope."