The cause of a fire that destroyed a predominantly-black Greeleyville church Tuesday night has not been determined. It’s the second black church to burn in rural South Carolina — and seventh in the South — in little more than a week.
Federal investigators are not ruling out arson at Mt. Zion AME Church, but say it’s too early to know a cause at this time. Greeleyville is a small Williamsburg County town of roughly 375 people located about 50 miles south of Florence and 85 miles west of Myrtle Beach.
“What I can tell you is we have everyone here humanly possible to investigate it and we’re going to let the facts determine it,” ATF Assistant Special Agent in Charge Craig Chilcott said during a Wednesday press conference. “It really is premature to make a cause of origin determination. We’ve got folks still inside the church digging it out. I’ve seen these investigations take weeks.”
Greeleyville Mayor Jessie Parker said the same church was burned by the KKK 20 years ago. “To ride up there last night and just see the church in flames again, it gives you an ill feeling,” he said. Then-President Bill Clinton visited the church in 1996.
The timing of the fire is raising suspicions, but investigators have not released any indications at this point that they believe it was arson. Seven African-American churches have caught fire in the South over the past two weeks amid heightened racial tensions over the Confederate battle flag and the murder of nine African-Americans at a Charleston AME church. Three of those fires are being investigated as arsons, although none of those were in South Carolina.
It’s still undetermined what caused a fire at Glover Grove Baptist Church in the tiny Aiken County town of Warrenville. “Based upon the scene examination and the evidence collected, agents were unable to determine an exact origin or fire cause,” the State Law Enforcement Division wrote earlier this week. “As a result, agents were unable to eliminate all accidental ignition sources. Investigators observed no element of criminal intent. The cause of the fire was best classified as undetermined.”
Another fire not included in those totals occurred last week at the Jerusalem Center in Andrews — a Missionary Baptist kindergarten and preschool. Andrews Fire Chief Bobby Barrineau said an outbuilding caught fire in a blaze his department believes was intentionally set. Barrineau said the outbuilding was vacant and in disrepair, which separates it from South Carolina’s two church fires. Andrews is about 30 miles east of Greeleyville.
The AME Church’s Presiding Elder for the Kingstree District Rev. Allen Parrott said the Greeleyville community would stay together after the fire. “We are a little distressed,” he told reporters. “Whenever something happens to a place of worship, it causes you to feel a great deal of remorse. But at the same time, we are never without hope.”