Lightning strike likely caused Mount Zion fire

Smoke rises from Mount Zion AME Church late Tuesday in Greeleyville.

BY ANDREW KNAPP and GLENN SMITH

aknapp@postandcourier.com gsmith@postandcourier.com

The fire that destroyed Mount Zion AME Church in Greeleyville on Tuesday night was likely caused by a lightning strike, authorities said Thursday.

Investigators from the State Law Enforcement Division and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives found no evidence of criminal intent, SLED spokeswoman Kathryn Richardson said in a statement.

Severe thunderstorms swept through much of the Pee Dee region that afternoon, bringing heavy rain and lightning to Williamsburg County.

“Based on the scene examination, the fire debris analysis, witness statements and a lightning-strike report, the cause of the fire was best classified as natural,” Richardson said. “The investigation is complete.”

The blaze at Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church raised suspicions as it came during a bout of fires that damaged other churches in the South with predominately black congregations. Also, members of the Ku Klux Klan had burned Mount Zion AME in June 1995.

The fire also came on the heels of the shooting earlier in June that killed nine black worshippers at Emanuel AME Church in downtown Charleston. Dylann Roof, a reported white supremacist, is charged with nine counts of murder.

The Justice Department said Thursday night that preliminary investigations indicate that two of the fires across five states were started by natural causes and one was the result of an electrical fire. No potential links between the fires have been revealed.

“All of the fires remain under active investigation and federal law enforcement continues to work to determine the cause of all of the fires,” Justice spokeswoman Melanie Newman said regarding the recent church blazes. “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.”

Mount Zion is the seventh black church to burn across the South, the second in South Carolina, since June 22. On that day, Gov. Nikki Haley called for taking the Confederate flag off the Statehouse grounds because of the racial hatred it had come to embody for many.

Investigators have deemed the fires as suspicious or of undetermined origin.

But it’s difficult to say from the available data whether the current rash of church fires is a part of a trend.

An average of 31 houses of worship had a fire of some magnitude every week from 2007 through 2011, according to a 2013 estimate by the National Fire Protection Association, which analyzed government data and survey results.

About 16 percent of these fires at religious buildings — or about five per week — were intentionally set. Those numbers include a small number of funeral homes and do not distinguish between predominantly white and black congregations.

NFPA analyst Marty Ahrens said the vast majority of fires at churches are caused by reasons other than arson, including faulty equipment and electrical problems. Some 30 percent can be traced to kitchen cooking fires. Another 4 percent can be blamed on lightning strikes, a sizable number but understandable given the fact the churches, with their steeples, often are among the taller buildings in communities, she said.

“Many of these fires are so minor they don’t warrant much of a mention,” she said. “But with everything happening right now, I imagine people are reading the police and fire logs very closely.”

Ahrens said it is difficult to say whether the current spate of fires is an anomaly or not, but she understands the attention and worry they’ve created given the backdrop of the church shooting in Charleston.

“People are very sensitive right now, and I don’t blame them a bit,” Ahrens said. “But you can have a lot of other circumstances and factors involved in starting fires on these properties.”

Even cases of arson don’t necessarily indicate a racial motive or a hate crime, Ahrens said. Some stem from vandalism or personal animosity toward a church.

A presidential task force found whites represented 63 percent of the people arrested for bombing or burning black churches in the late 1990s, but 37 percent were black.

The Rev. John Taylor said Mount Zion AME was insured and should have enough to pay for the reconstruction. In the meantime, the church is looking for a temporary house of worship.

His church is insured by Southern Mutual Church Insurance, which bills itself as the largest insurer of churches in South Carolina.

The company also insured the church at the time of the 1995 fire. Company President Robert Bates said lightning struck at least four times Tuesday in the vicinity of Mount Zion AME, based on tests it conducts in heavy electrical storms.

The insurance company has come to expect a certain number of lightning- and storm-related fires each year.

Taylor said he and his 62 active members will lean on each other and trust in the Lord, he said. “God sustains us. We will rebuild.”

Cleve O’Quinn, Doug Pardue and The Associated Press contributed to this report. Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.