TIFTON - Investigators sifted through the ashes at a popular seafood restaurant Thursday, looking for clues to the cause of a devastating fire.

Neighbors reported the blaze at Matt's Catfish House, on Ferry Lake Road near the Irwin County line, at about 3:30 a.m. The first firefighters on the scene saw heavy flames, Tifton Fire Chief Mike Flippo said.

The Tifton Fire Department and volunteers from Brookfield, Eldorado, Chula and Harding responded.

Most of the building was completely destroyed, although parts of the cinderblock walls were left standing. A separate apartment at the back of the restaurant was also heavily damaged.

Flippo said the state fire marshal's office always investigates large commercial losses, and inspector Ronnie Dobbins was on the site Thursday afternoon. The cause had not been determined at presstime.

Matt's Catfish House opened Nov. 15 and attracted customers from all over South Georgia, owner Matt Marshall said. The business seated 132 people and had an outstanding night last Friday, serving 384 people in three hours.

The restaurant served steak but specialized in fresh fish - catfish, grouper, snapper, shrimp and oysters.

"The only two things in here that were frozen were French fries and ice," Marshall's father, Fred Marshall, said. "If you ate fish, it had been out of the water 48 hours tops."

No estimates on damage were available. Marshall leased the building from its owner, Leon Barnes, but owned the equipment.

Fred Marshall said his son's plans are to re-open in another location as soon as possible.

To contact city editor Florence Rankin, call 382-4321, ext. 209.

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