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Lightning suspected in fire at historic S.C. black church

Federal investigators suspect lightning may have caused the fire at Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in Greeleyville, South Carolina, senior officials in the FBI said Wednesday morning.

The FBI has been working with the National Weather Service to determine whether the heavy storms in the area contributed to the fire. A forensics report of lightning strikes by CNN meteorologists shows four strikes occurred in the immediate vicinity of the church, all at 7:18 p.m. EDT Tuesday night.

The Greeleyville fire drew attention because at least six other black church fires have occurred since the racist killings of nine people in a Charleston church.

The Greeleyville church has burned before. In 1995, two members of the Ku Klux Klan set fire to its original structure.

When the current one was ready for dedication in 1996, then-President Bill Clinton visited the small town to call on the nation to unite around race.

By early Wednesday, only the brick walls were left of that second building. The flames completely gutted the interior and collapsed the roof. Their remains smoldered as investigators began their work.

About 50 firefighters, local police, the FBI, five agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) are investigating. The sheriff’s office and state police are also pitching in.

“Anytime there is a house of worship involved in a fire, ATF is automatically assigned to look into the cause,” said agency Special Agent Tom Mangan.

Authorities said earlier Wednesday that it was unclear what caused the blaze at the church about 65 miles north of Charleston, South Carolina.

There are “still a lot of questions to be answered,” said Stephen Gardner, chief sheriff’s deputy of Williamsburg County.

“We haven’t ruled anything in or anything out at this point” regarding what caused the fire, said Craig Chillcott, assistant special agent in charge of the ATF field division in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Since the June 17 murders at Charleston’s Emmanuel AME church of nine worshippers by a white 21-year-old saying he wanted to start a race war, at least six black churches have burned in the southeastern United States. That includes Tuesday night’s burning of Mt. Zion.

Regardless of the cause of Tuesday’s blaze, “it was another punch to the gut” to the community, said former state Rep. Bakari Sellers on CNN Wednesday.

“This community has been through so much,” he said, alluding to April 4 shooting death of Walter Scott by a white police officer — who has been charged with murder — and the Charleston church massacre this month.

“We are weary,” he said. “We are tired.”

The other black churches that have burned since June 17 are:

* June 26: Greater Miracle Apostolic in Tallahassee, Florida. The fire was likely 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 observed no element of 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. ATF and other agencies said that it looked like vandalism.

* June 21: God’s Power Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia. Investigators believe the blaze might be arson. ATF is investigating but no ruling has been made. The church had recently been broken into and air conditioners and sound systems stolen.

The blaze this week at Mount Zion echoed pain from 20 years ago.

Two white men who reportedly said they were members of the Ku Klux Klan pleaded guilty to starting the blaze and another at a separate black church.

They received almost two decades in prison for those crimes.

“It’s devastating to put the church and the community through the same thing,” Greeleyville Mayor Jesse Parker told CNN. “To see it back in flames in such a short span of time is hurtful to the entire community.”

The blazes were part of a spate of about 30 fires that swept black churches in Southern states at the time.

Senior Bishop John Bryant of AME’s national headquarters said Tuesday night’s fire “will not send us into despair or depression. As Christians, we are a people of resurrection and even from the ashes we will rise.”

Most recent religious targets of hate crimes have been synagogues and mosques, the Southern Poverty Law Center said.

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 percent were intentionally set, and these caused about 25 percent of the reported property damage, the report said.

The number of fires at religious institutions has dropped dramatically since 1980. Before then, twice as many structures burned each year, on average.

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