With grief and shock from the racist killings in a Charleston church still fresh, a predominantly black house of worship in another South Carolina town burned down late Tuesday.
Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in Greeleyville, in the state’s east, had seen flames before. Twenty years ago, two members of the Ku Klux Klan set fire to its original structure.
When the current one was ready for dedication in 1996, then-President Bill Clinton visited the small town to call on the nation to unite around race.
By early Wednesday, only the brick walls were left of that second building. The flames completely gutted the interior and collapsed the roof. Their remains smoldered as investigators began their work.
ATF, FBI investigate
Alongside the some 50 firefighters who fought the blaze, the FBI, five agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives responded, as did local police, the sheriff’s office and state police.
“Anytime there is a house of worship involved in a fire, ATF is automatically assigned to look into the cause,” said ATF Special Agent Tom Mangan.
As yet, authorities do not know what caused it, said Williamsburg County Fire Chief Randy Swinton.
A dog will likely be sent in to sniff out first clues, once the embers cool down, said Nero Priester, an ATF arson specialist. That could be as early as Wednesday afternoon.
Previous hate crime
The church’s previous structure burned in 1995 as a result of hate-motivated arson during a spate of about 30 fires that swept black churches in Southern states at the time.
Senior Bishop John Bryant of AME’s national headquarters said Tuesday night’s fire “will not send us into despair or depression. As Christians, we are a people of resurrection and even from the ashes we will rise.”
The fire occurred less than two weeks after nine people were shot to death at a Bible study class at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, just 75 miles south of Greeleyville.
Since that shooting, at least six African-American churches in the Southeast had gone up in flames before Tuesday’s blaze. Investigators have said that there has been no evidence these were hate crimes, nor that they were linked. Two of them may have been the result of arson.
Most recent religious targets of hate crimes have been synagogues and mosques, the Southern Poverty Law Center said.
Firefighters battled blazes at more than 1,700 religious structures per years between 2007 and 2011, according to a 2013 report from the National Fire Protection Association. These included houses of worship of all religions as well as funeral parlors and religious schools.
Nearly a third of the fires were caused by cooking devices. Almost a quarter started in kitchens or cooking areas. Electrical lines or lighting cause 10% of the fires.
About 16% were intentionally set, and these caused about 25% of the reported property damage, the report said.
The number of fires at religious institutions has dropped dramatically since 1980. Before then, twice as many structures burned each year, on average.