Arson did not cause the fire that destroyed the St. Phillips Baptist Church in Swainsboro on Saturday, the city's fire chief said.
An investigation by the state Insurance and Safety Fire Commission, the Swainsboro fire and police departments and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms indicates there was no arson or criminal intent involved, Chief Jerry Odum said.
The investigation into the fire that burned most of the century-old black church continues, and officials expect to release the cause today, Chief Odum said.
State Fire Commissioner John Oxendine sent a team of investigators, including one of his canine units, to investigate the fire that destroyed the 210-member church at 220 S. Racetrack St.
Chief Odum said the Swainsboro Fire Department received the call to the fire at 6:57 p.m. Saturday. When firefighters arrived, smoke was coming from all eaves, he said.
"That showed us we had a hidden fire," he said. "It was just setting there without oxygen, indicating that we could have a very dangerous back-draft.
"As we prepared to attack the fire through the back, the fire broke through the back of the church. We had a firefighter on the scene that had made it to that point with the hose, and as the fire broke through, it knocked him down. We had a back-draft."
After the back-draft, firefighters entered the church but could not find the fire.
"The fire was actually in the walls and in the attic," Chief Odum said. "There was no visible fire anywhere until the ceiling started coming down. That's the type of fire you dream of and hope you never have."
Hidden fires have killed many firefighters, the chief said.
The fire had been burning so long overhead it had weakened the structure to the point that if firefighters had not known the signs and gotten out of the church, several could have been killed, he said.
"We recognized the signs and got out, and the ceiling fell in," he said.
And as the ceiling fell in, it pulled the weakened roof down with it, he said.
Firefighters saved portions of the church, but the main sanctuary was destroyed, Chief Odum said.
Loss was estimated at about $250,000.
The congregation plans to rebuild and has met at the Swainsboro Art Center, although scheduling has them looking for another temporary home, said the Rev. James E. Love, pastor of the church. Some books in parts of the offices survived, and the fire jumped a pantry building used as storage for the church's food bank. Everything else was a loss, he said.
"The brick walls caved in - right now it's really a hazard to the community. ... We are looking to get the church built again. We don't want anything to be holding the church back.'Staff Writer Alisa DeMao contributed to this article.
Reach Sylvia Cooper at (706) 823-3228.