The front of the sanctuary was in flames, and smoke was pouring from the windows of Morning Star Baptist Church when Johnny Archibald arrived to a grimly familiar scene in Alabama.
As soon as he saw the fire, he immediately thought of the five other Baptist churches that had burned in the morning darkness four days earlier.
"I don't know what's going on," Archibald said Tuesday as he stood outside the ruins of his church. "It's just sickness."
Morning Star Baptist and three other rural Alabama churches were damaged or destroyed by fires Tuesday, bringing the number of suspicious church fires in the state to nine in less than a week.
Authorities said they had no clear suspects but were inspecting tire tracks and footprints and searching for a dark-colored sport-utility vehicle.
"Obviously somebody or somebodies are interested in burning down churches. Whether it's hate against a race or religion in general, we don't know," said Ragan Ingram, a spokesman for the state insurance agency that oversees fire investigations.
Ingram said the first rash of fires early Friday — at four predominantly white churches and one predominantly black church — are believed to be linked.
The FBI was already looking into whether those fires were civil rights violations under laws covering attacks on religious property, and the state and federal government had offered $10,000 in rewards for information when the new fires were reported.
The four fires Tuesday — all at predominantly black churches — could be a continuation of that crime spree, or they could be copycat attacks, Ingram said Wednesday.
FBI acting assistant director Chip Burrus said investigators are working on the assumption that all nine fires are connected.
All of the churches are Baptist, the dominant faith in the area, and all were off rural roads not far from highways. The fires were in two clusters: the first five all in Bibb County, south of Birmingham, and the latest four in western Alabama 10 to 20 miles apart.
Three of the fires Tuesday appeared to have started near the churches' altars, according to church members and authorities, and at least two were found to be arson.
Top priority for ATF
Rich Marianos, a spokesman for the federal Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agency, said Tuesday that more than 50 agents are now assigned to the investigation and it is the No. 1 priority nationally.
In Boligee, Archibald said he was told by a resident that a sport-utility vehicle had been seen speeding through an intersection near the church.
Members of the Old Union Baptist Church in Brierfield, damaged by fire early Friday, had earlier told The Associated Press they saw a dark SUV near their church as they arrived to douse the flames.
Archibald's Morning Star Baptist Church was reduced to smoking rubble. Burned to its concrete block foundation, all that remained of the wood-frame building was the front steps and handrail.