BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Suspicious fires destroyed three small churches and damaged two others in central Alabama early yesterday, officials said.
All five fires, which investigators said broke out between midnight and 3 a.m., were in rural Bibb County. There were no injuries.
The county's chief deputy sheriff, Kenneth Weems, told the Associated Press that the fires were set "as fast as they could drive from one location to the next."
Federal officials said they were looking into whether the fires were hate crimes. "We're looking to make sure this is not a hate crime and that we do everything that we need to do," said Charles E. Regan, an assistant special agent in charge of the FBI office in Birmingham.
The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is also investigating the fires, along with state and local authorities.
Unlike another rash of church fires in central Alabama in the middle 1990s, race does not appear to be a factor, officials said. One of the churches, Pleasant Sabine, is a predominantly black church; the congregations at the other damaged churches in Bibb County are white.
In neighboring Chilton County, a building that was a former sanctuary for a church near the town of Clanton was damaged but not destroyed by a fire on Thursday afternoon, said Ragan Ingram, assistant commissioner at the Alabama Department of Insurance, which includes the state fire marshal's office.
Though this fire is under investigation, it is not considered suspicious and it is not clear that it has anything to do with the other fires, Ingram said. He said the Bibb County fires were considered "highly suspicious because of their proximity and similar time frames."
Four of the churches - Ashby and Rehobeth, which were both destroyed, and Antioch and Old Union, which were moderately damaged - were affiliates of the Southern Baptist Convention. Pleasant Sabine was a Missionary Baptist church.
News of the fires spread quickly early yesterday, minutes after the calls went out from the county dispatcher to firefighters and emergency responders. Members of the churches that were set ablaze showed up to help fight the fires; others drove to their own churches to stand guard.
Jimmy Jones, a retired elementary school principal who lives in Six Mile, about ten miles from Centreville, said his son called him at around 4 a.m. about the fires. They both drove to Jones' church, Six Mile Baptist, only about five miles from Ashby Baptist.
Jones said church members were planning to take turns standing guard at the church last night. Bibb County is a rural, heavily wooded county of little more than 20,000 residents. It is a far cry from neighboring Shelby County, which has become a fast-growing suburb of Birmingham, and Tuscaloosa County, where the University of Alabama is located. The county is crisscrossed by narrow county highways and dotted with small Baptist churches, with congregations that often number in the low double digits. Many of the churches date to the 19th century.
The Pleasant Sabine church building, which sits across a cemetery from Antioch Baptist, dated to the late 1800s, members said. While Ashby Baptist is 149 years old, the building that was burned dates to 1919, the pastor, Jim Parker, said.
The Old Union Baptist church building, which was damaged, dates to 1886, and some residents said that the Reheboth Baptist church building, which was known by the neon sign that sat on the roof declaring that "God is Love," was the oldest.
The fires all occurred in a sparsely populated area south of Brierfield and west of the city of Centreville.
The Rev. Jim Parker, who has been the pastor of Ashby Baptist church for two years, said the fire was started near the pulpit, apparently in some silk flowers. Wendy Argo, a children's minister at Old Union Baptist church, said two church deacons who went to stop the fire found two flower pots and an American flag ablaze at the altar.
Ingram said the way the fires started was still undetermined.
As for tomorrow, the congregations that lost their churches will make do. The Alabama Baptist Board of Missions has offered mobile chapels and financial assistance to some of the congregations. Nearby Shady Grove Baptist Church is opening its doors two hours early for the Ashby congregation to have their services.
"The Lord's been really good to us and allowed us to do some really good work here," said Parker, of Ashby Baptist Church. "Whoever did this was not in their right mind."