UPDATE: Investigators are on scene this morning, and a press conference is set for 10 a.m. The Associated Press is reporting that a federal source says preliminary indications show the fire was not arson.
Flames engulfed a historic African-American church Tuesday night that was already destroyed once by a blaze ignited by the Ku Klux Klan in 1995.
Mount Zion AME Church in Greeleyville is the seventh black church to burn across the South in the wake of the killing of nine worshipers at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church.
State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel said several agents responded to the fire and that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and other federal agencies were notified. The cause was not immediately known Tuesday night.
Cezar McKnight, D-Kingstree, watched as heavy smoke billowed from the church and bright orange flames shot into the air. The church is located at 564 MacKey Road.
“It’s gone,” he said. “They don’t know the cause yet, but I am hoping for the best.
“South Carolina has been through a lot the last two weeks and we’ve made the best of a terrible situation. I would hate for this to be something somebody did on purpose to try to poison the love and fellowship.”
Keel said that a fire investigation likely couldn’t begin until the blaze was extinguished, which was not the case at 10 p.m. The fire was out by midnight, according to Williamsburg County Sheriff’s Office investigator Alex Edwards. He late Tuesday said that it began about 8:30 p.m. and it was unknown if foul play was suspected.
A storm blew through the area just before the fire, Keel said, speculating that lightning could have ignited it, but adding that he did not know for sure. He said recent events, however, were cause for concern.
“Certainly, I think we all are concerned about those things,” he said.
Pete Mohlin, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in North Charleston said there was a lot of lightning in the Greeleyville area between 6:30 and 7 p.m. but that there was no way to tell if it started the church fire.
Mount Zion AME is one of two churches that was torched in June 1995 by two KKK members. The other was Macedonia Baptist Church in Bloomville.
The response to a string of church fires 20 years ago was similar to the response to the Emanuel shootings in Charleston. Then-President Bill Clinton even visited Mount Zion AME as it was being rebuilt and spoke at the dedication. His remarks then were hauntingly familiar.
“The men and women of Mount Zion have shown us the meaning of these words by refusing to be defeated and by building up this new church. Others have come together with you,” Clinton said on June 12, 1996. “The pastor told me he got contributions from all over the world to help to rebuild this church. In just a few days we’ll have a joyful noise coming out of this church. ... I want to ask every citizen, as we stand on this hallowed ground together, to help to rebuild our churches, to restore hope, to show the forces of hatred they cannot win.”
Doug Pardue contributed to this report. Reach Melissa Boughton at 937-5594 or at Twitter.com/mboughton.