COLUMBIA, S.C. >> A fire that destroyed a black church that 20 years ago was a target of the Ku Klux Klan was not the work of an arsonist, a federal law enforcement official said Wednesday.
Preliminary indications are that the fire at the Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in Greeleyville was not intentionally set and was not arson, the official said. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the case publicly. The fire is still under investigation, the official said.
Greeleyville is a town of about 400 people around 50 miles north of Charleston, where a pastor and eight members of a historic black church were fatally shot June 17 in what authorities are investigating as a hate crime.
The fire — reported about 9 p.m. Tuesday as storms moved through the area — occurred as federal authorities also investigate a series of fires at black churches in several Southern states. So far, there is no indication the fires are related.
On Wednesday morning, only the brick walls of the Greeleyville church remained. The roof had collapsed, and the long windows no longer had glass in them. The side of the church facing the rural highway had a white cross that appeared charred.
Investigators walked through the debris, taking pictures and examining the remains of the building. Yellow crime scene tape kept reporters and nearby residents away from the building.
The Rev. Alice Parson Wright, a pastor at an AME church about 20 miles away, stopped by the scene of the fire Wednesday morning.
"When I got the message last night, my first thought was: ‘Not again. Not again. Not again,’" she said. "And then the second thought was: ‘I pray this is not arson but an act of God because of the weather.’"
Wright, who has preached at Mount Zion and knows the congregation, said the church won’t be defeated. "The way they rebuilt before … I can’t see them doing anything else but rebuilding," she said.
The image of orange flames coming from the same church the KKK burned down in June 1995 brought up painful memories, said Williamsburg County Councilman Eddie Woods Jr., who got out of bed Tuesday to drive to the church after hearing about the fire.
"That was a tough thing to see," Woods said. "It is hurting those people again. But we’re going to rebuild."
Two members of the Ku Klux Klan pleaded guilty to starting the 1995 fire and a second blaze at another predominantly black church.
Kinnard reported from Columbia, South Carolina. Associated Press writer Jeffrey Collins also contributed.