The cause of a fire that destroyed a predominantly black church in Greeleyville, South Carolina, on Tuesday does not appear to be arson, a source told the Associated Press, citing a preliminary investigation.
Meteorologists from the National Weather Service told BuzzFeed News that lightning struck within the church's area around the time of the fire. Investigations remain ongoing.
The Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church, destroyed 20 years ago by Ku Klux Klan members, burned again Tuesday evening. It was the latest in a series of recent fires at black churches across the South.
According to preliminary indications, the fire was not intentionally set and was not arson, the AP reported a source as saying. The fire is still under investigation.
Terry Lebo, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service, told BuzzFeed News that there were four lightning strikes within 1,000 feet of the church last night, "Lightning will sometimes strike nearby and smolder for a while without setting fire to anything," Lebo said, explaining that it could likely be the reason for the church's fire.
At a press conference today, an official from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) said, "We haven't ruled anything in or anything out at this time."
Officials said giving out any information from the preliminary findings would be "premature." The ongoing investigation is being conducted by ATF officials and the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED).
A firefighter that was hospitalized due to heat exhaustion was released at 4 a.m. this morning, officials said.
Fire officials learned of the blaze at 8:30 p.m., according to a statement from the Williamsburg County Sheriff. By the time crews arrived, the flames were already burning through the roof. A resident called in the fire, authorities said at Wednesday's press conference.
A Williamsburg County Emergency Management spokesperson told BuzzFeed News the fire was under control by 11 p.m.
The church is a "total loss" and will have to be rebuilt, authorities said. The congregation will move to a temporary worship site.
The cause of the fire was still under investigation early Wednesday morning but the initial investigation did not show signs of arson.
Firefighter Jason Hardy — whose department from neighboring Clarendon County assisted Tuesday night — told BuzzFeed News he did not have information on how the fire started, though he said "a pretty good storm" came through about that time.
Sr. Bishop John Bryant of the African Methodist Episcopal Church told CNN he would "withhold opinion until after an investigation" into the cause of the blaze.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, which is also investigating other church fires that have occurred recently in the South, was on scene early Wednesday. The ATF investigates all fires at U.S. churches.
The South Carolina State Law Enforcement Division also was involved in the investigation.
Mount Zion AME Church is a fixture in the region and previously was burned by the Ku Klux Klan in 1995, according to the Post and Courier.
Two self-described members of the KKK eventually admitted to starting the fire.
The church gained further national attention in 1996 when President Bill Clinton toured the site.
The blaze in Greeleyville comes just days after arsonists burned black churches in multiple southern states.
Last week, churches burned in Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. Investigators confirmed that several of the fires were deliberately set.
Federal investigators later announced they were working to determine if the three of the fires were hate crimes.
The church fires began just days after Dylann Roof allegedly went on a race-driven killing spree at a predominantly black church in Charleston, South Carolina, about 65 miles from Greeleyville.
Jim Dalrymple is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles.
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