South Carolina forensic investigators believe a fire that destroyed predominantly-black church in Greeleyville on Tuesday night was due to natural causes — likely a lightning strike.
“Based upon the scene examination, the fire debris analysis, witness statements and a lightning strike report, the cause of the fire was best classified as natural,” the State Law Enforcement Division said in an email Thursday. “Investigators observed no indicator of criminal intent.”
The email says SLED considers the investigation to be complete. Agents spent much of the day Wednesday working with federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms investigators and the Williamsburg County Sheriff’s Office to sift through the church ruins. The team found “no indicators of criminal intent,” the SLED release states.
The timing of the fire had raised suspicions, as the church was the seventh historically African-American structure to catch fire in the South over the past two weeks (including Glover Grove Baptist in Aiken County) amid heightened racial tensions. Three of those fires are being investigated as arsons, although none of those cases were in South Carolina. SLED investigators could not determine a cause for the Glover Grove fire, but said there is no evidence it was intentionally set.
Williamsburg County was hit hard by thunderstorms shortly before the fire was reported around 8:30 p.m. Tuesday. CNN reported four lightning strikes were detected in the church’s “immediate vicinity” around 7:18 p.m.
An Associated Press report on Wednesday quoted an anonymous source as saying the fire had been caused by a lightning strike. But SLED, ATF, and local law enforcement distanced themselves from that report later that morning, saying it was too early to determine a cause.