Despite the combined effort of three fire departments, flames raged virtually unchecked through the McCullough community’s oldest church early Friday, December 16, leaving only the brick walls and a mass of fire-warped tin that had been the church’s roof.
“It’s pretty far gone,” said James McNeil, a deacon of First Baptist Church, a historically black house of worship that had stood for more than 90 years and has “probably 50-something” members. “We’ll probably never know what caused it. I’ve been in this church for 38 years and I have lots of memories. The place where you find the Lord, you never forget it. But God will fix it.”
More than a dozen firefighters from McCullough Volunteer Fire Department, Poarch Fire Department and Huxford VFD fought the blaze for nearly five hours before finally containing it around 1 p.m.
According to McCullough VFD Chief Eddie Kirby, the initial call came in around 8:10 a.m. He added that the fierce blaze was rapidly spreading through the upper regions of the church by the time firefighters got there.
“All the fire was up in the attic,” Kirby said. “With the wind and the tin roof, it spread like wildfire. The smoke and heat were ridiculous. One of the Poarch guys went in about 10 feet and came right out. A tin roof like that holds the heat, and there ain’t a thing in the world you can do with it.”
The fire chief was called back to the site around 2:30 p.m. after stiff winds rekindled smoldering ceiling joists and rafters. Kirby, who sprayed more water on several “hot spots,” said an investigator with the State Fire Marshal’s Office and an agent of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives had given the charred rubble a preliminary look.
“I was going to notify the Fire Marshal’s office, but I looked around and there they were,” he said.
Foul play is not suspected, but McNeil said a state fire investigator told him that the agency would return later for a closer examination of the burned tin and the electrical wires.
“He said they would bring bulldozers in and get that tin out to check it,” the deacon said. “Then they are going to get the wires and carry them back to their lab. It’s a small church, a black church sitting back in the woods, so you never know.”
Kirby said he didn’t think the fire was intentionally set.
“It wasn’t set; at least I don’t think it was,” he said. “It couldn’t have been because the doors were locked. We had to take an axe and knock the locks off the doors before we could get into the building.”
He noted that every effort was made during the futile attempt to suppress the tragic fire.
“We put a lot of water on it,” he said. “I don’t know how many thousands of gallons we put on it, but Poarch set up their engine, and we were using their trucks, Huxford’s trucks and ours to haul in water. We had three different crews spreading water on it. There’s just no way to save one with a tin roof on it; it burns hotter, and once it gets into the insulation, you can kiss it goodbye.”
Church officials had not announced by Tuesday’s press deadline the location at which the FBC congregation would conduct its services while the fire investigation and the rebuilding process were ongoing.