HAMLET — The N.C. State Crime Laboratory found no trace of accelerants in ash and other substances from the Jan. 5 fire at Hamlet’s century-old First United Methodist Church, police Capt. Randy Dover said Thursday.
The State Bureau of Investigation collected the materials, which Hamlet Police sent to the lab. SBI has declared the blaze “a set fire,” but Hamlet Police refuse to release their verdict yet.
“That doesn’t mean (the fire) wasn’t set,” Dover said of the absence of accelerants such as gasoline or kerosene. But “we still can’t say it’s definitely arson.”
A metal detector on Dover’s desk Thursday will help police gather further clues, Dover said, refusing to specify what police were looking for.
“We’ve got some stuff going on now I can’t talk about,” he said. “It’s been a hard case — a very hard case.” All Dover would say was that police were following tips on the fire. What information they do have, they have gathered in their inspections of the church.
Investigators also still won’t say whether the fire began inside or outside the church, although they all seem to agree that it began near a stained-glass window on the High Street side that broke and partially melted during the blaze. The church faces Charlotte Street.
Pastor Deb Wilkins said that bystanders watching the fire claimed that “somebody saw somebody throw something through a window.” But she didn’t know whether the fire could have started that way — the church installed Plexiglas shields over the windows a few years ago, to protect them from projectiles.
The night of the blaze, Hamlet firefighters responded to two 911 calls, one from a neighbor and one, a passerby.
A crew of four arrived with two engines, a rescue vehicle and a ladder truck, followed soon by Rockingham firefighters with a truck that had a longer ladder — in case the fire reached the attic.
“Heavy smoke and flames (were) visible in a (stained glass) window” when firefighters arrived, said Lt. Justin Pruitt of the Hamlet Fire Department. The window later fell out of its frame, shattered by the heat and by the melting of its lead soldering. The Plexiglas plate on the outside of the window also melted away, Pruitt said.
Firefighters “forced entry into the church,” Pruitt said, confirming that the church was closed to outside access.
According to a program for its Centennial Night in 1977, the current church was built in 1906 and enlarged in 1914. The sanctuary was remodeled in 1953.
Since the fire, church members have been worshiping in a chapel in their fellowship hall.
A request for an update from the SBI was not returned in time for this story.
Anyone with information on the cause of the fire is asked to call the Hamlet Fire Department at 910-582-2441 or Richmond County CrimeStoppers at 910-997-5454.
Reach Christine Carroll at 910-817-2673 or [email protected]