ST. MARYS, Ga. - Viola Drummond's initial description of a fire that destroyed Camden County's oldest black church was "an act of God" that seemed to end an important part of her life.
"I cried so many tears, I didn't have any more to shed," she said.
A day later, Ms. Drummond, of St. Marys, looked at Tuesday's fire, which gutted First African Baptist Church, as a new beginning.
Ms. Drummond, a member of the 138-year-old church for 43 years, said she is confident the 200-member congregation will stay together, despite the uncertainty ahead.
Church leaders planned to meet Wednesday night to discuss where to hold worship services, choir rehearsals, and mission and usher meetings, said Larry Davis, assistant chairman of the church's deacon board.
"We want to see if we can come to agreement about what to do," Mr. Davis said.
One fact everyone Mr. Davis has talked with agrees on is that the church will rebuild.
The fire began at about 4:30 p.m. Tuesday after lightning apparently struck the steeple, sparking a fire that soon roared out of control, even though firefighters were on the scene within minutes.
Raymond Roberts, of St. Marys, watched the fire at first but then left because he thought it was under control.
"I was shocked when I came back later and saw everything burning," Mr. Roberts said.
Karl Lewis, a volunteer firefighter in St. Marys, said the fire was difficult to extinguish because the lightning ignited support beams under the steeple and spread throughout the building in areas where water hoses could not reach.
"The flames spread unchecked through the rafters under the roof," Mr. Lewis said.
There were no injuries from the fire, officials said.
Despite strong evidence that lightning caused the blaze, state arson investigators were on the scene Wednesday to determine the cause and extent of damage. Investigators are called to the scene of any church fire, regardless of the cause, Mr. Lewis said.
Roscoe Alderman, a church trustee who is responsible for maintenance, said congregation members prayed and sang hymns while firefighters tried to extinguish the flames.
Mr. Alderman said he had just repainted much of the interior and cleaned the carpet.
He spent much of Wednesday waiting for permission to go back inside to see whether anything could be salvaged, but he didn't see much worth picking up from the charred ruins. Mr. Alderman said the church is insured, but he had no idea about the extent of damage.
Church officials will not be allowed inside the structure until insurance investigators determine that it's safe to go inside and estimate the extent of damage.
But Mr. Alderman said he believes the building is a total loss.
"We'll have to tear the whole structure down and rebuild," he said. "It's a matter now of picking up the pieces. It brings tears to my eyes."
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