Lightning, not arson, caused the fire that gutted a traditionally black church in South Carolina this week, federal and state investigators have concluded.
Tuesday’s fire at Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in Greeleyville was caused by lightning, and there was “no criminal intent,” the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said Thursday on Twitter.
The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division concurred, releasing a statement Thursday saying that the fire is “best classified as natural” and that investigators found no indications of wrongdoing.
The Greeleyville fire drew attention because there have been fires at least five other black churches since the June 17 racist killings of nine people in a Charleston, South Carolina, church.
Senior FBI officials said as early as Wednesday that lightning might have caused the Greeleyville fire, citing heavy storms that were in the area when it started. They also said investigators at the scene found no accelerants, which would have been an indicator of arson.
A forensics report by CNN meteorologists showed four lightning strikes in the church’s immediate vicinity at 7:18 p.m. ET Tuesday.
Tuesday’s fire was the Greeleyville congregation’s second devastating one in 20 years. Arson destroyed a previous Mount Zion AME church building in 1995.
Two white men who reportedly said they were members of the Ku Klux Klan pleaded guilty to starting the 1995 blaze and another at a separate black church. They were sentenced to serve prison sentences of almost two decades.
Firefighters battled blazes at more than 1,700 religious structures per year between 2007 and 2011, according to a 2013 report from the National Fire Protection Association. These included houses of worship of all religions as well as funeral parlors and religious schools.
Nearly a third of the fires were caused by cooking devices. Almost a quarter started in kitchens or cooking areas. Electrical lines or lighting cause 10% of the fires.
About 16% were intentionally set, and these caused about 25% of the reported property damage, the report said.
The other black churches that have burned in the United States since June 17 are:
• June 26: Greater Miracle Apostolic in Tallahassee, Florida. The fire was probably caused by a tree limb falling on power lines.
• June 26: Glover Grovery Baptist in Warrenville, South Carolina. The cause has not been determined, but investigators saw no criminal intent.
• June 24: Briar Creek Road Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, which houses both black and Nepalese congregations. Fire investigators ruled that fire an arson, and though they have not seen evidence that hate was a motivation for the crime, they are not ruling it out.
• June 21: College Hill Seventh-day Adventist in Knoxville, Tennessee. Investigators ruled it an arson, but they say nothing so far has indicated a hate crime. The ATF and other agencies said that it looked like vandalism.
• June 21: God’s Power Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia. Investigators say the blaze might be arson. The ATF is investigating, but no ruling has been made. The church had recently been broken into, and air conditioners and sound systems were stolen.