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Cluster of church fires staggers Alabama county

Investigators seek motive, congregants seek solace amid ruins

CENTREVILLE, Ala. -- In the rolling farmland and forests of rural Bibb County, the anchors of the communities are the churches.

Seeing five of them erupt in fire early yesterday on a foggy night -- three left in smoking ruins, two damaged -- has sent a chill through hamlets where lives revolve around twice-a-week worship services.

''It's just sad we have people in this world who are so sick they'd want to do something like this," Edith Wilson said yesterday as she stood near the smoldering, charred remains of Rehobeth Baptist Church, which she has attended off and on since her birth in 1936.

''I got married here in 1957," she said as her husband, Frank, a volunteer firefighter, helped douse embers at the church. ''My daughter got married here in 2001. My brother got married here in 2003. I've got about 75 relatives buried in the cemetery."

Federal and state authorities arrived to assist the Bibb County Sheriff's Department in the investigation, but authorities said there were no immediate suspects or motive.

''I think it was somebody just foolish. I pray God has mercy on them," said Terry Bell, the associate pastor of Pleasant Sabine Baptist Church near Centreville, which was burned to the foundation before members knew what had happened.

The fires in Bibb County, about 25 miles south of Birmingham, were ''as fast as they could drive from one location to the next," Chief Deputy Sheriff Kenneth Weems said.

As congregants were alerted to the fires, some found churches fully ablaze or collapsing into smoldering rubble.

A fire at Old Union Baptist Church in Brierfield started in two flower pots under an American flag, which burned along with some furniture and carpet.

Alvin Lawley, a nearby resident, said that he and another person got to the fire quickly and put it out with an extinguisher.

''We couldn't have been far behind them," he said.

Ashby Baptist, also in Brierfield, was less fortunate. Volunteer firefighters found it fully ablaze when they arrived about 4 a.m.

Chief Lesslie Edwards, a member who helped build a section of the church, said the fire was ''a nightmare when we got here."

Also damaged was Antioch Baptist in Antioch. Authorities also were looking into a fire Thursday afternoon at a church in adjacent Chilton County, but a spokesman for the state insurance agency that oversees fire investigations said construction work had been going on there and it was not immediately clear if that blaze was connected to the others.

There was no obvious connection between the five Bibb County churches. Only Pleasant Sabine has a predominantly black congregation. All the churches are Baptist, as that is the dominant faith in the area.

Governor Bob Riley planned to visit all five churches today and said ways to assist the congregations would be explored.

''I am outraged that anyone would deliberately set fire to churches," he said.

Jim Cavanaugh, head of the federal Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives office for Alabama and Tennessee, said that although it was clear that the fires were purposely set, finding a motive could prove to be difficult.

''Anything you light in a church is going to be a symbol," he said.

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