CENTREVILLE, Ala. – The search for a possible arsonist or arsonists was under way Friday after six small churches in rural Alabama were found burning. At least five of the fires were suspected to have been set deliberately.
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.
Most of the churches were Baptist and all were in Bibb County, about 25 miles south of Birmingham. Of the five suspected to have been targeted by arsonists, three were destroyed and two others were damaged.
The Bibb County fire marshal told a Friday afternoon news conference that the investigation into the cause and origin of the five fires was continuing, and he couldn't release much information about what, if anything, authorities had learned.
"We're not sure that all five of them were set fires," he said. "It's hard to believe that all of them were accidental."
The churches that burned Friday morning included Rehobeth Baptist Church in Randolph, Ashby Baptist Church in Brierfield, Old Union Baptist Church in Brierfield, Pleasant Sabine southeast of Centerville and Antioch Baptist Church in Antioch, FOX affiliate WBRC in Birmingham, Ala., confirmed. New Harmony Holiness Baptist Church in Fairview, Chilton County, was also ablaze. Ashby Baptist and Rehobeth Baptist both burned to the ground.
All were within a 15- to 20-mile radius of each other, according to WBRC.
The fire that damaged the Chilton County church apparently happened late Thursday afternoon and gutted New Harmony Holiness Baptist. No one was hurt. That church had been undergoing construction, which could have been a source of the fire, said Ragan Ingram, a spokesman for the state insurance agency that oversees fire investigations. There was no reason to believe that it was connected to the other five.
Firefighters were still spraying water on some hotspots late Friday morning.
There were no immediate arrests and no injuries were reported. Authorities were uncertain of a motive or how many arsonists took part.
"The perpetrators of these cowardly acts will be brought to justice," Michael Jackson of the Bibb County sheriff's office told reporters in the news conference.
The FBI joined the investigation by state and local authorities.
The Rev. David Hand of the Old Union Baptist Church said a fire was discovered at his church at around 4:30 a.m. Friday. But, he said the blaze was extinguished before it could cause serious damage.
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 other churches had a similar pattern.
Alvin Lawley, who lives near Old Union Baptist Church in Brierfield, hurried to the building before dawn and found two flower pots ablaze at the front of the sanctuary under an American flag.
"We couldn't have been far behind them," he said. The flames damaged some furniture and carpet before Lawley and another person put out the fire with extinguishers.
The minister of The First Baptist Church of Woodstock — which was not burned — told FOX News that all the churches targeted were southern Baptist; one is predominantly black while the others were predominantly white.
In 1996, race was a factor in a series of arsons that damaged rural black churches in Alabama and elsewhere. But Ingram said the fires late Thursday and early Friday destroyed both the churches of predominantly black congregations and predominantly white congregations.
WRBC reported that police have not made public the names of any suspects or announced any arrests. But pastors of the burned churches have been making plans for weekend services.
Republican Congressman Spencer Bachus of Alabama visited Bibb County Friday "to see the destruction firsthand."
"My deepest sympathies are with the residents of Bibb County and members of the affected churches," Bachus said in a statement released by his office. "Federal, state and local resources are being exhausted to find those responsible for these heinous acts. ... My prayer is that the people of Bibb County can soon begin to heal."
FOX News' Jonathan Serrie and The Associated Press contributed to this report.