South Carolina officials ruled the fire that broke out at Mount Zion A.M.E. Church in Greeleyville earlier this week was an act of nature — not arson.
The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division announced Thursday via a statement evidence gathered by the Williamsburg County Fire Department and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) showed the fire was caused by multiple lightning strikes rather than deliberately burned down.
“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. Investigators observed no indicator of criminal intent. The investigation is complete,” the statement said.
Mount Zion A.M.E., which was rebuilt after the Ku Klux Klan burned it 20 years ago, was the seventh black church set ablaze in the last month. News of the fire fueled already high tensions in the wake of the deadly Charleston shooting where white gunman Dylann Roof opened fire on nine black church goers in June.
Attacks on black churches are not a new phenomenon, but investigators have been reluctant to draw a definitive racial or organizational connection between recent church burnings. Not all of the recent church fires appear to be arson, however, they do carry racial and historical significance. African-American churches were prime targets for white assailants dating back to the early 1800’s as means of intimidation, which often turned deadly.
Following South Carolina officials announcement, the Justice Department released a statement, saying there was no link to the church fires across five states.
The federal law enforcement team of ATF, FBI, the Civil Rights Division and U.S. Attorneys’ Offices are actively investigating several church fires across five states that have occurred over the past two weeks. Preliminary investigations indicate that two of the fires were started by natural causes and one was the result of an electrical fire. All of the fires remain under active investigation and federal law enforcement continues to work to determine the cause of all of the fires. To date the investigations have not revealed any potential links between the fires.
If in fact there is evidence to support hate crime charges in any one of these cases, the FBI, in coordination with the ATF and local authorities, will work closely with the Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices to bring those forward.