Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Fires Reported at 4 More Ala. Churches

By JAY REEVES, Associated Press Writer 28 minutes ago

Fires damaged four more rural Baptist churches overnight following rash of suspected arsons that burned five others south of Birmingham last week, a state official said Tuesday.

The four new fires were near the Mississippi line, about 10 to 20 miles from each other. All were in sparsely populated areas off rural roads, similar to the five that burned early Friday south of Birmingham.

Ragan Ingram, a spokesman for the state insurance agency that oversees fire investigations, said it was too soon to say if there was any link between the sets of blazes.

"Obviously we're going to investigate these as suspected arsons," Ingram said.

All nine churches were Baptist, the dominant faith in the area.

The four fires reported Tuesday were in three sparsely populated counties in west Alabama. Dancy First Baptist Church near Aliceville and Spring Valley Baptist Church near Emelle were damaged, Ingram said. The other two, Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church near Boligee and Gallilee Baptist in Panola, were destroyed.

In Boligee, firefighters sprayed down the smoldering rubble at Morning Star Baptist Church, where all that remained of the wood-frame building were the front steps and handrail. The church had burned to its concrete foundation.

Johnny Archibald, a church member who lives nearby, said he was alerted to the fire by a school bus driver and arrived about 6:45 a.m, just as smoke was pouring out of windows and flames were visible near the pulpit. He said it seemed as if the side door had been kicked in.

He said he immediately thought of last week's church fires.

"I don't know what's going on. It's just sickness," he said.

The string of fires early Friday in rural Bibb County, about 25 miles south of Birmingham, destroyed three churches and damaged two others.

In the past five years, Alabama has had 59 church fires, 19 of those ruled arsons, Ingram said.

Agents investigating the five Bibb County fires said Tuesday that they were looking for a dark-colored sport-utility vehicle in connection with the blazes.

Members of Old Union Baptist Church in Brierfield told The Associated Press in interviews that they saw a dark Nissan Pathfinder near the building as they arrived to put out a fire shortly after 4 a.m. Friday.

Investigators believe all five Bibb County fires were linked, Ingram said. He said they are pursuing several leads but "the leads haven't led us to a specific suspect or a motive."

The FBI is looking into whether fires are a civil rights violation under laws covering attacks on religious property, said FBI Special Agent Raymond Zicarelli in Birmingham. State and federal rewards totaling $10,000 have been offered in the probe.

The nine churches that burned included both predominantly black and predominantly white congregations.

The state fire marshal's office said Tuesday that it had ruled another church fire, Thursday afternoon in rural Chilton County, an accident.

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