GREENVILLE, N.C. - Police increased their patrols of churches Sunday after fires broke out at two Baptist churches during the night and a break-in was discovered at a third.
"We're going to be highly visible at our churches," Greenville Police Chief William Anderson said Sunday.
Authorities stopped short of saying the fires were arson, but Fire Chief Mike Burton said that, given the size of one of the blazes, investigators were treating it as a crime scene.
"Most of the accidental causes would not have that rapid of a buildup," Burton said.
There were no immediate reports of injuries, and authorities said they found no signs of fires at any other church in Greenville, which is about 75 miles east of Raleigh.
The state Bureau of Investigation, along with Greenville officials and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, were working Sunday to determine the cause and origin of the fires.
Both fires and the break-in were reported between 10:37 p.m. and 11:31 p.m. Saturday.
Firefighters sent to The Memorial Baptist Church found smoke billowing from its educational wing, and flames soon spread to the church's original structure.
Police said witnesses reported seeing a person fleeing from The Memorial in a white vehicle shortly after the fire broke out. The tires of three church vehicles were slashed.
Damage was estimated at $1 million, Burton said. The main sanctuary appeared undamaged and the steeple was standing, but firefighters were worried about its stability, authorities said.
"That's bricks and concrete, and that stuff can be replaced," said Dr. Rick Bailey, the associate minister of the church. "You just need to move on."
A few hundred church members gathered Sunday morning in a nearby picnic area. Bailey said several churches in Greenville offered to host the congregation.
"It was hard to stand here and watch it burn," said Judith McCoy, a member with her husband at The Memorial for the past 23 years.
The fire at Unity Free Will Baptist Church, about a mile away from The Memorial, was contained to a few rooms and damage was estimated at between $30,000 and $40,000.
"Right now, I'm numb," said Jeff Manning, minister at Unity Free Will. "My head is spinning. We will have to figure out what to do, and at the same time, our heart goes out to the good folks at Memorial Baptist because theirs is a whole lot worse than ours."
Police were also investigating a break-in at Oakmont Baptist Church, less than a quarter-mile from The Memorial, said police Cpl. Kip Gaskins.
"At this point we're still collecting evidence. However, we have all these churches set on fire minutes apart from each other, so you can take that for what it is worth," Gaskins said.
From the looks of their pages: http://www.unityfwb.org/
I don't think these are "historically black churches" and there is no mention of that in the article. So I don't think race was an issue. I guess there is intolerance for Christians even in the Bible belt. This happened in AL last year and it was a "joke" by some college students so I guess it could be something similar again.
I'm glad no one was hurt though