ALBANY, GA (WALB) - Fire crews spent several hours battling a two-alarm fire in downtown Albany early Wednesday morning. Just after 9:00 Wednesday morning, Dougherty Co. Coroner Michael Fowler told WALB that a man died as a result of the blaze.
Fowler identified the victim as Michael Jason Lewis, 41, of Albany. The coroner believes he died from smoke and soot inhalation.
Multiple fire crews and police responded to a fire at the old Albany Theatre in the 100 block of North Jackson Street.
APD said three men, believed to be homeless and living inside the building, had to be rescued from the fire. Through interviews with the three men, APD believed Wednesday morning that there was a fourth person unaccounted for.
At daybreak, crews began to search the structure and look for any other people that were inside.
Albany Fire Department Interim Battalion Chief Wesley Wells said it's unlikely anyone inside would have survived the fire.
Assistant Fire Chief Rubin Jordan and Investigator Sam Harris said they believe a cigarette discarded on the roof led to the fire.
Six engines and two aerial trucks were brought in and used tens of thousands of gallons of water to extinguish this fire which took nearly three and a half hours to get under control. In all, 32 firefighters responded to the scene.
"It was just unfortunate," said Denisa Watson, who owns Star Stylist Hair Studio two buildings down from the Albany Theatre. "My heart goes out to the family of this person as well as the people that were in the building with him."
Fire investigators said they believe Lewis, living in the building, had thrown a lit cigarette onto the roof below, where trash on the roof caught fire, sparking the blaze.
Crews worked to keep the fire from spreading to nearby businesses. The theater is vacant but it's located just two doors down from the Cookie Shoppe.
An arson investigator worked throughout the morning to figure out the cause of the fire and if it was started by vagrants living in the building.
The 100 block of North Jackson Street (between Pine Ave and Broad Ave) was closed for a few hours while crews battled the blaze.
Albany Police advised that if people need shelter, they should contact the Salvation Army or the Albany Rescue Mission.
The theater opened to the public in 1927.
When it reopened, it was restored into a performing arts center.
In August 2006 it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Multiple attempts have been made to restore the building.
In 2011, efforts were made to convert part of the theater into loft-style apartments. It's unclear what renovations had recently been made to the building.
The Albany-Dougherty Inner City Authority owns the historic building.
City Commissioner BJ Fletcher said she's not aware anyone was recently looking to develop it.
"Its one of the buildings that people have looked at," Fletcher said. "I don't really know the history of it because there is so much of it going on downtown. I do know that we do have is some people that have shown some interest, but as far as recent activity, I don't know."
Investigators said at least six people were most likely living in the building.