After a preliminary examination of the fire scene, arson is not suspected. But neither is it being completely ruled out, according to John Ham, a public information officer with the ATF.

In the wake of Tuesday’s fire that ravaged the Antioch Baptist Church building in Ralls County, one question that lingers is: What caused the blaze? To help answer that question, a federal agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has been called in to investigate.

After a preliminary examination of the fire scene, arson is not suspected. But neither is it being completely ruled out, according to John Ham, a public information officer with the ATF.

“In this case there is absolutely nothing to indicate it was a criminal act. In fact I think we’re steering away from that, but as of right now we don’t know the cause,” he said.

With the help of the Hannibal Fire Department’s ladder truck the ATF agent was able to get a bird’s eye view of the structure’s still smoldering remains on Wednesday afternoon. As of yet, however, the investigator has not been able to venture into what remains of the structure to look for clues.

“That (investigation) was hampered because the structure itself was so damaged in the fire,” said Ham. “While there are still brick walls standing, there’s nothing really holding those walls up so it wasn’t a safe enough scene to put an investigator into the fire scene to start looking for the place of origin.”

According to Ham, an ATF agent was dispatched from St. Louis because the ATF has jurisdiction on fire investigations that occur in a house of worship, particularly if there is a possibility it was caused by a criminal act.

“That doesn’t mean we go to all of them. If the local investigators or fire marshal’s office can look at it and know pretty certainly it was not a criminal act then we won’t go,” he said.

The ATF also became involved because its help was requested.

“In this case the Missouri State Fire Marshal’s office asked for our assistance and any time any agency asks we’ll certainly send fire investigators and investigative resources,” said Ham.

Despite the fact the ATF has a world class reputation for fire investigation, Ham acknowledged that sometimes a cause can’t be determined.

“Particularly in a fire with this extensive of damage we may not be able to specify exactly what caused it,” he said.

Fire-fighting effort

Tuesday afternoon’s blaze gave firefighters little time to mount a counter attack.

“The fire started in the back of the building and seemed to be in a stairway area. It progressed rather quickly to the attic area,” said Mike Dobson, chief of the Hannibal Rural Fire Protection District. “When you saw it in the attic you knew that basically you were up against a wall.

“We had five tankers shuttling water and we were able to pull some water off of a tower that’s out on Antioch Road. We had water. It just spread too fast to be able to control it.”

Blackened second story windows “indicated high heat there,” according to Dobson, who also took note of smoke coming out the gable ends in the attic “which told me that fire had already progressed through the stairwell, which acts like a chimney.”

A brief attempt was made to attack the flames from the interior.

“The fire was initially attacked from the rear of the building in a defensive mode from outside and control could not be made,” said Dobson. “The Hannibal Fire Department arrived and two firefighters attempted entry through the front doors into the sanctuary, but they advised that the floor was unstable. Shortly after their entry they were pulled back out as the fire broke through the roof over their position.”

Reach reporter Danny Henley at danny.henley@courierpost.com