A series of fires erupted in isolated churches along rural backroads south of Birmingham early Friday, destroying or damaging five houses of worship in what authorities called an arson case with no discernible motive.
Congregants alerted to the flames on a foggy night found some church buildings fully ablaze or collapsing into smoldering ruin. At one church, whose congregation dates back more than a century, members arrived just in time to put out a blaze that had been started under an American flag at the front of the sanctuary.
Jim Cavanaugh, head of the federal Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms office for Alabama and Tennessee, said it was clear the fires were purposely set. "Obviously they're arson. The thing is — what is the motivation?"
As soon as Leslie Evans arrived at Ashby Baptist early this morning, the fire became personal. The local fire chief couldn't stop his own church from burning to the ground, CBS News correspondent Mark Strassmann reports.
"You get here, all your church members, all your firemen, belong to this church. I helped build this," Evans told Strassmann. "To watch it burn down is no good."
Unlike a 1996 outbreak of fires at black churches in Alabama and elsewhere, there was no common thread of race in this case. Four of the churches have white congregations and one is black. All were Baptist, the dominant faith in the area.
Cavanaugh said fires in churches can raise difficulties in finding a motive. "Anything you light in a church is going to be a symbol," he said.
A fire Thursday afternoon also heavily damaged a church about 20 miles away in Chilton County, but construction work had been going on there andif that blaze was connected to the others, said Ragan Ingram, a spokesman for the state insurance agency that oversees fire investigations.
Federal investigators, joining state and local authorities, said the arson probe would include the New Harmony Holiness church at Fairview in Chilton County.
There were no immediate arrests. Uncertain of a motive, authorities also did not know if one or more people took part.
Two others — Old Union Baptist at Brierfield and Antioch Baptist at Antioch — were damaged.
Robert Ingram, who lives near Rehobeth Baptist, said the sky was lit up by flames when he awoke early Friday in his mobile home and saw the church on fire.
"At 2 o'clock it was blazing 100 feet high," he said. "It was just boiling out of the building."
The wood-frame church, whose congregation was established in 1819 and now has about 80 members, was left in smoking rubble Friday.
At Ashby Baptist, volunteer firefighters from Brierfield found it fully ablaze when they arrived about 4 a.m.
Chief Lesslie Edwards, a member who helped build a section of the church, said the fire was "a nightmare when we got here."
Alvin Lawley, who lives near Old Union Baptist, whose congregation was established in 1886, hurried to the church after being called about 4 a.m. He said he and a second person arrived just after fires had been started in two flower pots under an American flag, which was burned.
"We couldn't have been far behind them," he said.
He said some furniture and carpet was burned before they put out the fire with extinguishers.
"I am outraged that anyone would deliberately set fire to churches," said Gov. Bob Riley, who planned to visit all five Saturday. He said ways to assist the churches would be explored.
Congregations promise to rebuild, Strassman reports. But this fire also battered Brenda Sisco's Christian spirit.
"When you see the rest of your church being torn down, the walls, forgiveness is not the first thing in your heart," she said. "But you know that's not right.