Firefighters responded to the blaze at about 1 a.m. near 60th Street in the town’s main shopping district and extinguished it, officials said.
The investigation of the incident has been completed, and the fire has been determined to be accidental, according to Police Director Bob Antolos. He said glass cracked on one of the candles laid down next to the tree, with the candle “self-combusting” and igniting debris on the ground nearby, including flowers that had been left there and leaves.
“The tree had minimal damage to the base, and there is smoke damage,” Antolos said. “It’s darkened because of the smoke.”
The fire came a few days after the one-year anniversary of the religious icon’s discovery. The site had become a major religious shrine and received national attention, with residents and visitors praying there on a daily basis. On Saturday, June 13, a large public ceremony had been held, complete with Mariachi band, according to Mayor Felix Roque.
On Friday afternoon, Roque said the image had been blackened by the fire, but still existed, following a cleaning by Department of Public Works employees.
Roque said a tree expert would be visiting the site to see if the image could be preserved. The mayor said he was hopeful that would be the case.
“To me, it was great having the ‘Virgin Mary tree,’ because it gave people hope and inspiration,” he said.
On Friday, rumors had spread up and down Bergenline Avenue that the fire had been deliberately set. But Antolos said that was not the case, citing an eyewitness who said he saw the candle break, spark, and ignite the fire. Police also had additional proof that the blaze was not deliberately set.
“We checked (video) cameras in the area, and there was no foul play,” Antolos said.