CENTREVILLE, Ala. -- ATF Resident Agent-in-Charge, Birmingham told an afternoon news conference Friday that the "ATF and FBI are putting all available assets" into the investigation of the suspected arson fires that damaged or destroyed five churches in Bibb County, Thursday night or early Friday.
ATF agent David Hyche said investigators are "not ruling anything out" as far as the investigation goes.
Hyche said that in his memory, he has not come across this many church fires together in the area. Investigation teams are currently in the state from Mississippi, Tennessee, and Louisiana and more team members are expected tomorrow.
FBI Special Agent-in-Charge of the Birmingham field office Charles Regan, told reporters gathered at the press conference that the FBI has "opened a civil rights case in this matter." They do not know at this time if the fires will be considered hate crimes.
Regan asked anyone with any information on the fires to call the Birmingham field office tip line at 1-877-628-2533. The ATF is also accepting calls at 1-888-ATF-FIRE around the clock.
Bibb County District Attorney Michael Jackson said Friday, "The perpetrators of these cowardly acts will be brought to justice....They're going to be sent off...going off to prison."
Jackson asks that all residents in rural communities where churches are located to keep their eyes open. "If you see something out of the ordinary, you need to report it." The DA pointed out in particular suspicious cars parked near rural churches at night should be reported.
If you have information related to the investigation, you may also contact the Bibb County Sheriff's Office at 205-926-7200 or the Bibb County DA at 205-926-4247.
State Fire Marshal Richard Montgomery says "based on the proximity of the churches and the timing of the fires, they are classified as highly suspicious."
A sixth church in Chilton, County also burned; but, as of yet, no connection to the other five has been made.
Ashby Baptist Church on Highway 139 in the Brierfield community was one of the churches that burned to the ground.
Jim Parker, a member of the Ashby Baptist Church, told WBRC television in Birmingham that he understood the fire began near the pulpit and that the fires at the other churches had a similar pattern. Ashby Baptist Church has been in the community since the early 1800s. Two firefighters suffered minor injuries fighting the fire.
The fires were set "as fast as they could drive from one location to the next," Bibb County Chief Deputy Sheriff Kenneth Weems said of the cluster of blazes, all near U.S. 82 and Highway 139.
The pastor of another nearby church, the Reverend David Hand of the Old Union Baptist Church, says a fire was discovered at his church at around 4:30 this morning. But, he says the blaze was extinguished before it could cause serious damage. Hand told WVTM in Birmingham that the fires were set in two flower pots inside the church.
Ragan Ingram, a spokesman for the state insurance agency that oversees fire investigations, said most or all the churches are Baptist. He said some of the churches had white congregations and some black.
According to the Alabama Fire Marshal's Office the complete list of churches damaged so far is
- Antioch Baptist Church, Antioch - minimal damage
- Ashby Baptist Church, Brierfield - destroyed
- New Harmony Holiness Church, Fairview - moderate damage
- Old Union Baptist Church, Brierfield - minimal damage
- Sabine Baptist Church - destroyed
- Rehobeth Baptist Church - destroyed
An article in today's Clanton Advertiser reports the Old New Harmony Church was gutted by a fire. No one was hurt and investigators with the state Fire Marshal's Office are trying to determine how it started.
There have been no arrests.
Reacting to the news of the burned churches, Christian Coalition of Alabama President John Giles stated, "When someone commits a disgraceful cowardly act and assaults the Sacred House of Worship, it is a not only sad day in Alabama, but also a sad day in America. Whoever is responsible for these acts should be federally prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. When the House of the Lord is not safe, then no where in America is safe."
Alabama Governor Bob Riley said, concerning the church fires, "I am outraged that anyone would deliberately set fire to churches. I want the people of the affected congregations to know that the state will do all that's possible to find those responsible and bring them to justice. My office has been in contact with local authorities and the state is doing everything it can to assist with the investigation. I also want the members of these churches to know that our prayers are with them as we explore ways to assist their congregations."
Governor Riley, Department of Public Safety Director Col. Mike Coppage, and Insurance Commissioner Walter Bell will meet with other state and local officials in Bibb County to get a status report of the investigation.