With excavation of the Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church site already underway, Deacon Lee Magee says he can finally close a troubling chapter in his life.
After a month-long investigation into the fire that destroyed the 88-year-old church, officials announced last week that there were "no detectable signs of arson." They said the exact cause of the fire is "undetermined."
Magee said he's relieved by the investigation's results.
"I definitely did not want it to be arson. Now I can move on," Magee said.
Portland Fire Capt. Rich Stenhouse said he would like nothing more than to pinpoint the course of the fire's path through the 88-year-old church.
"But I can't do that," he said. "I find that immensely frustrating."
While the findings of the investigation don't rule out arson as a cause of the fire, lab results found no evidence of ignitable liquids.
Morning Star's pastor, Rev. Albert Wayne Johnson said he is grateful to the investigators for their commitment and to the community for their support.
"While many speculate arson … arson, which is hate … it does not exist in our community," he said. "That makes me proud."
Colene Domenech, of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, said investigators believe the fire started on the first floor at the south end of the building, where electrical lines, as well as the organ room, were located. She said there were no signs of a break-in, and evidence of a hate crime — including graffiti or someone taking credit for the fire — does not exist.
The almost complete destruction of the building made the investigation very difficult, Stenhouse said. The fire's intense heat was caused by several factors, including high ceilings and the fact that the stained glass windows blew out, giving the fire a fresh oxygen source.
Officially, the case remains open, although every lead has been exhausted.
This is the first fire in Portland to be investigated by the Metro Arson Task Force, which is comprised of officials from the Department of Justice, the ATF, Portland fire and police departments and state police. Stenhouse said the size of the fire and the fact that the building was a church brought federal interest, resources and money.
The church's congregation plans to rebuild at the same site, Johnson said. While developers have made offers for the land — something that was happening even before the fire — they have no plans to move, Magee said.
The undisclosed amount of money Morning Star has received from insurance and donations is enough to start excavating the site, and Johnson says the excavation and future construction will rely on "green" building practices. Church leaders plan to recycle bricks, copper and other materials from the ruins.
Magee said they expect the site cleanup to last about three weeks. Church leaders are considering designs for a new building from an architectural firm located in Dallas, Texas.
The new church, Magee said, will utilize space and materials more efficiently, but people shouldn't expect to see a copy of the original building.
Magee said the church – which has been meeting at Rose City Funeral Chapel and other locations since the blaze — is still asking for support from the community and is still accepting donations.
Donations can be made to the "Morning Star" account at any Wells Fargo bank.
Of the 1,500 church fires annually in the United States, only 17 percent are determined to be arson, according to figures from the ATF. Of the 1,017 structure fires in Portland last year, 7.5 percent were officially designated "undetermined," less than the national average of 12 percent, according to the Portland Fire Bureau.
It may be frustrating to the public, but the inconclusive ending doesn't alter the hopeful spirit of the people who most loved Morning Star Missionary Baptist.
"Most members I talk to, they're excited we can start and move toward a new beginning," Magee said.