Fire destroys another African-American church in South Carolina

Reuters / Adrees Latif
The Mt. Zion AME Church in Williamsburg County, South Carolina has burned down. Federal investigators suspect the blaze was started by a lightning strike, rather than arson, according to local reports.

About 50 firefighters, local police, the FBI, and five agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) are assisting the local sheriff’s office and state police in investigating the fire.

Federal investigators said they had found no accelerants at the scene to indicate arson. A heavy thunderstorm passed through the area on Tuesday night, resulting in multiple lightning strikes in the vicinity of the church.

Local TV station WCSC reported that officials received a call about the fire around 9 pm on Tuesday. The church, located on Mackey Road in Greeleyville, was severely damaged in the blaze, according to the Clarendon County Fire Department.

"The building collapsed," firefighter Jason Hardy of Clarendon County told the Huffington Post. "Only the outer shell is left. Just brick standing."

This is the second time Mt. Zion has caught fire. The last time was in 1995, when it was burned to the ground by former Ku Klux Klan members. In 1996, President Bill Clinton attended the dedication ceremony for the new church that was built in the aftermath.

"My prayer is that we're not having a repeat,"Rev. Nelson Riverstold ABC News 4. "But we're not going to take chances and we are plotting where the churches have burned so far, reaching out to the pastors and the congregations, and also talking to the authorities in those areas to see what they think."

Mark Keel of the State Law Enforcement Division told the Post and Courier that authorities have notified the ATF about the situation.

He also said the fire could have been caused by lightning from a storm that had just passed through the county, but an investigation into the incident would not be able to commence until after the flames had been doused.

Asked about the possibility of it being related to other recent fires at black churches, he said, “Certainly, I think we all are concerned about those things.”

Mt. Zion AME is now the seventh church to catch fire since 21-year-old Dylann Roof shot and killed nine people in Charleston, South Carolina’s Emanuel AME Church. State and federal officials are looking into the blazes, some of which may be classified as hate crimes.