'It's ministered to this whole community': Flames gut historic Statesville church

STATESVILLE, N.C. — Investigators are probing into the cause of a massive fire that destroyed a Statesville church late Sunday night.

[PHOTOS: Massive flames rip through Statesville church]

Dozens of firefighters responded to the Old Western Avenue Baptist Church around 11:30 p.m. after the security company said someone had come into the building.

"I got a call from the security company that someone had come in one of the side doors, and by the time my wife and I got here we saw the building in flames," said Pastor James Hunter.

According to fire officials, no one was found inside the building, but the pastor said they've had a problem with squatters in the past and tried to better secure the building.

Fire officials said the church has been condemned for about five years, but an outreach group purchased the building and has been making renovations for the past four months.

The church, which was built in the 1960s, was a staple in the Statesville community.

"It's a loss to the city. Sad to see this happen," said Statesville Fire Chief Spencer Lee. "To have iconic building, the archiecture is a loss to the city."

(Watch raw video captured by Statesville's fire chief)

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Fire officials deemed the church a total loss, but the pastor said he is staying optimistic.

"This is just an unfortunate situation. Something good is going to come out of it because we believe we are stronger together. We believe some good things are going to come out of it," said Hunter.

The pastor said when they started their work months ago at the church, they found someone who had been squatting inside.

"As far as I know, we had that situation cleared up," Hunter said. "We made the building secure to the degree where people couldn't enter it freely."

Channel 9 was there as crews worked to contain the flames and could see plumes of black smoke coming out of the roof of the church. The fire was so intense that part of the roof collapsed and smoke was still rising from the building 12 hours later.

Lee said the flames were contained within a few hours, but firefighters worked throughout the night to put out lingering hot spots.

The Fire Marshal's Office has ruled the cause of the fire to be "undetermined due to the extent of fire damage."

Many people in the community said the 100-year-old church was much more than a building including Michael Campbell, who drove up from Charlotte to see the church himself.

"It's ministered to this whole community. I was glad to see not all the stained glass is destroyed," Campbell said. "I was baptized here in 1959, I was married here in '75, so it's really hard to say what's worth, but it's a big loss."

Officials said the church is a total loss, but Campbell said he is hopeful something good will come out of it.

"It's turned into an opportunity for people to take this and still make this a place where people can worship God," Campbell said.

This is an ongoing investigation. Check back with wsoctv.com for updates.

(Slide for a before and after comparison of the church below)