By Phil Helsel and Pete Williams, NBC News

Investigators in South Carolina said Thursday that a fire at a historic black church this week was most likely sparked by natural causes and that no criminal intent was found.


The State Law Enforcement Division, or SLED, said the investigation into the blaze that gutted Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church on Tuesday was conducted with help of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, as well as local officials.

“Based upon the scene examination, the fire debris analysis, witness statements and a lightning strike report, the cause of the fire was best classified as natural,” SLED said in a statement, adding that the investigation is closed.

Tuesday’s fire occurred in an atmosphere of heightened tensions in South Carolina after a white gunman opened fire at another historic black church, Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, and killed nine people in what authorities have called a racially motivated attack

At least seven black churches have burned in the South since the massacre at Emanuel AME, authorities have said. Newman said three fires that have been investigated were determined to have been caused by natural or electrical causes.

“If in fact there is evidence to support hate crime charges in any one of these cases, the FBI, in coordination with the ATF and local authorities, will work closely with the Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices to bring those forward,” Newman said.

Mount Zion has been the target of racial hatred in the past. The church, founded more than 110 years ago, was burned to the ground on June 20, 1995, by two members of the Ku Klux Klan.

Read the full article here.

Read more Breaking News here.