​S.C. church burning likely accidental -- but suspicions remain

GREELEYVILLE, S.C. -- A historic black church in South Carolina burned overnight, making it the seventh southern church to catch fire since a racist gunman murdered people inside Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina two weeks ago.

ATF agents dug through rubble Wednesday, looking for any sign an arsonist torched Mt. Zion AME Church. Flames collapsed the roof and left the building a total loss. But federal sources told CBS News, the fire was likely accidental, possibly caused by lightning.

Fire engulfs Mt. Zion AME Church in Greeleyville, S.C. The News of Kingstree

"We're going to bring all the assets of the federal government to investigate this," said ATF agent Craig Chillcott.

In 1995, two Ku Klux Klansmen were convicted of burning down this same church. A year later, President Clinton personally dedicated the rebuilt Mt. Zion and condemned what he called "the false idols of hatred."

Now this community of faith is being tested again.

"I don't believe God is striking down black churches by lightning or every electrical problem is right now just happening," said Pastor Dimas Salaberrios, who is visiting from New York. "I believe we have to look at this is in a very suspicious way."

CBS News

Since June 21, six predominately black churches in five southern states from Tennessee to Florida have burned. Two of the fires have been ruled arson, and a third is suspected.

The FBI says from 2011 to 2013, arsonists have burned more than 100 houses of worship a year. The bureau doesn't record the race of the congregations.

None of this year's church burnings has been labeled a hate crime and authorities have found no links.

ATF agents tell CBS News it could be three to four days before they process this fire scene. A preliminary finding of what caused the fire at Mt. Zion could take several weeks.

  • Mark Strassmann

    Mark Strassmann has been a CBS News correspondent since January 2001 and is based in the Atlanta bureau.