ATF arrives to probe church fire - WALB.com, South Georgia News, Weather, Sports

ATF arrives to probe church fire

VALDOSTA, GA (WALB) -

Federal agents are now involved with the investigation into a Christmas Day church fire in South Georgia.

Investigators with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives arrived at the Ousley Temple Church of God in Christ Thursday.

The historic Lowndes County Church was destroyed early Christmas morning, and investigators suspect arson.

Pastor Curtis Sermons looked on in disbelief at what used to be his church. Now mostly a pile of rubble, he says he's confident Sunday service will still go on. "Sunday service will go on, in one place or the other."

With multiple local churches reaching out to help Sermons, a temporary location will have to do for now. Fire officials say the church is a total loss after it caught fire around 1:00 AM Christmas Day. Damages are estimated to be around $120,000 and with no insurance, rebuilding will be difficult.

The church was built 129 years ago, and though it has a small congregation of only 35 members, to them it's a large part of their life. The Lowndes County Sheriff's Office is leading the investigation, but today ATF officials from Macon and State Fire Marshals arrived on scene to help.

"Right now we are investigating it as arson," said Lowndes Co. Sheriff Chris Prine, who says he cannot reveal what leads them to suspect arson.

But Sermons says when he arrived during the blaze he couldn't believe what he was told. "When I first arrived on the scene one of the officers told me that. They had three leads and one of them saw a person running through the woods as the church began to burn, and got in a car and left."

Sermons has been the pastor here for 15 years. He says this Christmas was a day he'll never forget. "That's what I got for Christmas, church burning to the ground flames everywhere."

Prine says right now they are interviewing the few witnesses who saw the fire that night but it could be several months before they confirm how the fire started. If you'd like to help the Ousley Temple rebuild, a donation fund has been set up at the Bank of the Ozarks in Valdosta.

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