CENTREVILLE, Ala. — Five small Baptist churches were burned to the ground or otherwise damaged in a string of fires that investigators said were apparently set one after another by arsonists making their way down the highway.
The fires broke out late Thursday or early Friday in Bibb County, about 25 miles south of Birmingham. Chief Deputy Sheriff Kenneth Weems said the blazes were set “as fast as they could drive from one location to the next.”
There were no immediate arrests and no injuries were reported. Authorities were uncertain of a motive or how many arsonists took part.
The FBI joined the investigation by state and local authorities.
In 1996, race was a factor in a series of arsons that damaged rural black churches in Alabama and elsewhere. But this week’s fires were set at four white churches and one with a black congregation.
Three were destroyed, and two others were damaged.
'A lot of evidence' found
Alvin Lawley, who lives near Old Union Baptist Church in Brierfield, hurried to the building before dawn and found two flower pots ablaze at the front of the sanctuary under an American flag.
“We couldn’t have been far behind them,” he said. The flames damaged some furniture and carpet before Lawley and another person put out the fire with extinguishers.
Old Union Baptist Pastor David Hand said investigators were able to retrieve “a lot of evidence out of here,” including tire tracks, fingerprints and a shoeprint off a back door that had been kicked in.
Among the churches reduced to smoking ruins was Rehobeth Baptist in Lawley, a wood-frame church with about 80 members.
Jim Cavanaugh, head of the federal Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms office for Alabama and Tennessee, said finding a motive may be difficult. “Anything you light in a church is going to be a symbol,” he said.
Gov. Bob Riley planned to visit all five churches Saturday and said he would explore ways to assist the congregations.
Fire also heavily damaged a church in nearby Chilton County, but construction work had been going on there, and it was not immediately clear if that blaze was connected to the others, Ingram said.
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