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Scientology's volunteers get frosty reception at fire scene
by Robert Herguth ("Chicago Sun-Times," December 9, 2004)

As fire raged inside the LaSalle Bank building, a band of serious-looking young adults in yellow jackets hustled past the police tape toward the action.

Their coats bore the words "Volunteer Minister." But these weren't your standard chaplains -- like the five Catholic, Jewish and Protestant clerics already on the scene.

The volunteer ministers are members of the Church of Scientology, a religious group founded in 1954 by the late science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard and perhaps best known for celebrity followers such as John Travolta and Tom Cruise. Some critics -- including the German government, which views it not as a religion but a money-making scheme -- insist Scientology is a cult.

This was the first time the group's ministers responded in an organized fashion to a fire in Chicago -- and it probably won't be their last, even though their debut didn't go over too well with the Chicago Fire Department's chaplain corps.

"I threw 'em out," said one chaplain. "If they want to minister to the people on the sidelines, that's great . . . but they were standing in the triage and treatment area and they were making total chaos in there.

"We can't have untrained people at a time when things are very chaotic and you need a sense of order," he said. "Fire and police chaplains are trained in how to do this."

Mary Ann Ahmad, a spokeswoman for the Church of Scientology in Chicago, was told by her people that the volunteers were looking for someone in charge "to find out what was needed and wanted, and they were told, 'It's dangerous for people in here, so go outside.' "

If Scientology volunteers need special training, "they're totally willing," Ahmad said, adding Scientologists were at Ground Zero after the 9/11 attacks.

David Klarich, one of the Scientologists at Monday night's blaze, said the church is planning on regularly showing up at fires and other disasters in the region to offer an "assist" -- special techniques they use to aid the injured or traumatized.

A Chicago Fire Department spokesman was unaware of the situation but said he'd look into it.