Pastor: Blaze 'intentional'; Dublin officials investigating

DUBLIN — Flames tore through Central Baptist Church on Friday afternoon, destroying the more than 50-year-old sanctuary.

Firefighters began tackling a blaze at the church, located at 521 Smith St., at about 2:30 p.m. It was still burning late into the evening. Flames could be seen above the front-porch columns more than five hours after the fire began, and firefighters were using a ladder truck to attack the blaze from above. No one was inside the church when it caught fire.

Less than two weeks ago, in a separate incident, someone threw a brick into the window of the church in an attempt to set a curtain on fire, according to detective Mark Bell with the Dublin Police Department.

The Rev. Ellis Carswell, pastor of the church, said the earlier incident makes him think Friday’s fire was an act of arson.

“I have no idea why someone would do this, but I know it was intentional because of what happened a couple of weeks ago. We’re devastated,” Carswell said.

Dublin Fire Chief Robert Drew declined to say whether he suspected arson and said he wants to wait until the investigation into the fire had been completed. Drew declined to comment on the earlier incident at the church.

“All I can tell you is there’s an investigation ongoing. We’re not going to get ahead of ourselves,” Drew said.

Friday afternoon, smoke hung in the air across the entire city block where the church is located. People with cell phone cameras snapped pictures. Across the street, the American Red Cross served pizza to firefighters.

James Atkins of the state Fire Marshal’s Office said investigators weren’t able to get inside the church Friday.

“It’s going to be secured all weekend while it cools down, and we’ll be back Monday,” he said. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives will assist next week.

Drew said the fire was so big that firefighters from surrounding counties were called in to help with the firefighting effort.

“We’ve got every single respondent on scene that we can, and we’ve called in backup from Laurens County, East Dublin, Cochran and Dodge County because it’s such a big fire,” Drew said.

Drew said it’s likely the fire demolished the roughly 6,000-square-foot church that has about 125 members. He said he didn’t know what caused the fire, but guesses it started either in the attic or the back of the sanctuary.

“We’re bringing in investigators now to see if they can figure out what happened,” Drew said.

Three firefighters on the scene were rushed to the hospital because of heat exhaustion as temperatures soared close to 100 degrees, Drew said.

Central Baptist Church’s congregation will worship Sunday at First Rehoboth Association Center on Old Macon Road in Dublin. The service will begin at 11 a.m.

“We know that God is going to see us through this,” Carswell said.