AME church fire ‘not the work of an arsonist’

Fire destroyed the Mt. Zion AME Church in Williamsburg County Tuesday night. Photo from Carter Jones.

GREELEYVILLE, S.C. (WBTW) – Firefighters worked for several hours overnight to extinguish a blaze at a prominent black church in South Carolina.

State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel said the Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal church in Williamsburg County caught fire Tuesday night. The church was burned down by the Ku Klux Klan in 1995, but a federal law enforcement source said Tuesday night’s fire was not the work of an arsonist. Preliminary indications are that the fire at the Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in Greeleyville was not intentionally set and was not arson, the source said. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the case publicly. The fire is still under investigation, the official said.

Chief Mark Keel adds there were thunderstorms with frequent lightning in the area, but it is not yet determined if lightning is the cause of the blaze.

CLICK HERE for more photos from the scene.

Keel says officials at the scene don’t think anyone was inside when the fire started. It took nearly five hours for firefighters to extinguish the flames. This is the seventh church fire since the shooting at Emanuel AME in Charleston two weeks ago.

Williamsburg County Councilman Eddie Woods Jr. drove to the scene and says the blaze was so intense people were being kept several hundred yards away. Senator Ronnie Sabb was one of the first pedestrians on the scene and he explained that nearly 50 firefighters from three different counties came together to help put out the fire.

On Tuesday morning, a press conference was held in front of town hall to go over what happened.

“To ride up there last night and to see the church in flames again it just…it gives you an ill feeling.  And like we said we don’t know what happened.  What started the fire,” said Mayor Jessie Parker.

“Everyone’s heart sank last night when they thought wow…20 years removed we are back where we are.  However, we were resilient then.  We will be resilient now,” added Rep. Cezar McKnight.

Church members huddled together shortly after the press conference to say a word of prayer.

“I’ve been there for 61 years.  I was born right behind the church, born and raised,” mentioned long-time member Laura Ann Pressley.”

“Where we worship since I’ve been here for the last 9 years is now destroyed…and I do know for sure that god will help us rebuild it again,” explained Rev. John Taylor, Pastor at Mt. Zion AME.

Tuesday night’s fire left the church at a total loss.

Rev. Taylor says they will have church this Sunday at Kennedy Center.

There is no timetable for when officials may know the cause of the fire.

“I don’t know what happened.  Whatever happened we have to deal with.  If someone did this, i pray for them,” said Rev. Taylor.

Federal authorities are investigating several recent fires at predominantly black churches, though the blazes do not appear to be related.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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