The Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in Greeleyville, about 80 kilometres north of Charleston, caught fire Tuesday around 8:30 p.m. Bright orange flames and smoke rose out of the roof, which later collapsed.
It is the latest in an unusual string of fires at predominantly black churches in the past two weeks, and comes in the wake of the mass shooting at the AME church in Charleston. Nine people were murdered and the suspect, Dylann Roof, is believed to have targeted the victims because of the colour of their skin.
The church fires, whether intentionally set or not, have prompted concern — and a hashtag on social media: #WhoIsBurningBlackChurches.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has been using the hashtag on Twitter, and says its local chapters are alerting churches to "take necessary precautions."
Investigators said at a news conference Wednesday morning outside the Greeleyville town hall that they are not ruling anything in or out as they investigate the cause. There were thunderstorms in the area — maybe lightning struck the church, but maybe not. This church has burned before, on purpose, when members of the Ku Klux Klan torched it in 1995.
Emotional memories revived
Tuesday night's fire revived emotional memories for community members.
"To ride up there last night and just see the church in flames again, it gives you an ill feeling," Greeleyville Mayor Jessie Parker told reporters. He reiterated that the cause of the fire is unknown. But whatever caused it, the church is ruined — again — and that's hard to accept.
"We need prayer at this time. It's a hurtful feeling and it's sad to know that such a thing has happened just that quick …when I rode up there last night, it brought back all those old memories," Parker said.
The community will be strong though, he said.
"We'll get through this, we'll get through this," the mayor said.
A state-level politician, Cezar McKnight, and other officials at the news conference urged the community to be patient and not make assumptions about the fire's cause, and to "let the facts bear out."
"I'm confident that we will know what happened and the appropriate action will be taken at the appropriate time," he said.
Like the mayor said, however, the possibility that the fire was set on purpose is weighing on people's minds as they await answers, said McKnight.
"Everyone's heart sank last night when they thought, 'Wow, 20 years removed we are back where we are,'" he said.
Federal authorities, using canine dogs, were on the scene Wednesday morning to investigate, just as they have been involved in several other cases in parts of the southern U.S.
There was another church fire in South Carolina last Friday, in the town of Warrensville, and the cause remains undetermined.
A church in Charlotte, N.C., caught fire Wednesday, and it is suspected that vandals set it. The church itself was spared, while classrooms in the building were damaged.
Latest fire 'a punch in the gut'
Another fire happened last week at the College Hill Seventh Day Adventist church in Knoxville, Tenn., another predominantly black congregation. Authorities have said bales of hay outside the church were set on fire, and a church van was damaged in the blaze.
Churches in Georgia and Ohio have also been struck by fire in recent weeks.
Where the fires are suspected of being set intentionally, it is not clear whether they were racially motivated or just vandalism. There could be no link at all between the fires. They could have been accidents, or the work of arsonists who didn't intend to target black churches. But the fact that there are fires at all is taking a toll on the communities they affect.
"It was another punch in the gut," Bakari Sellers, a former member of the South Carolina legislature said on CNN Wednesday about the Greeleyville fire. Whether the fire was caused by arson or an act of God, the community has already been through so much, he said.
"We're weary. We're tired," said Sellers.
Regardless of what the investigation determines, "we will remain vigilent."