Security stepped up as fires break out at churches in eastern North Carolina

Monday, January 15, 2007

GREENVILLE, N.C. -- Police increased their patrols of churches across the city Sunday after fires broke out at two Baptist churches during the night and a break-in was discovered at a third -- all within an hour.

"We're going to be highly visible at our churches," Greenville Police Chief William Anderson said Sunday.

The speed of the first fire at The Memorial Baptist Church led investigators to treat both fires Saturday night as crime scenes, fire chief Mike Burton said.

"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 fire at Unity Free Will Baptist Church, about a mile away from The Memorial, was contained to a single room 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.

As word of the fires spread early Sunday, members of other churches in the Greenville area gathered to stand guard over their buildings, said Dr. Randy McKinney, senior minister at The Memorial. He cautioned, though, that wasn't the best way to respond.

"We can choose to live in fear," he said. "I choose to live in hope. We can't let fear run our lives."

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.

Firefighters sent to The Memorial 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 vans were slashed.

Damage was estimated at $1 million, Burton said. The main sanctuary had mostly water damage 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.

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