A row of chairs behind the pulpit at Hopewell Baptist Church on Wednesday, the day after a fire destroyed the building and someone spray painted the words "Vote Trump" on an outside wall.
A row of chairs behind the pulpit at Hopewell Baptist Church on Wednesday, the day after a fire destroyed the building and someone spray painted the words “Vote Trump” on an outside wall. Credit: Larrison Campbell/Mississippi Today

The chief of the Greenville Fire Department said Friday morning that accelerant was likely used to start the fire that destroyed Hopewell Baptist Church Tuesday night, putting to rest rumors that the fire was accidentally set.

“In the samples we’ve taken, it did appear to be accelerant, and now we’re trying to identify what type of accelerant it may have been,” said Chief Ruben Brown.

Samples taken from the scene were sent to the state crime lab Thursday for analysis. Brown said results are expected Monday or Tuesday.

Last Tuesday’s fire at Hopewell Baptist Church launched national headlines after first responders discovered the words “Vote Trump” on the side of the building. Mayor Errick Simmons announced Wednesday morning that the FBI would be investigating the fire as a hate crime.

A GoFundMe online campaign begun after the fire had netted donations for church repairs of $211,215 by Friday afternoon, with more than 6,000 individual donations coming in from every state and the District of Columbia and 29 countries, according to Katherine Cichy, a GoFundMe spokeswoman.

Still, some residents in Greenville weren’t convinced the fire was set intentionally or was an act of racism. Polly Powell lives in the house next door to the church and called the fire department after hearing the church’s alarm Tuesday night. But she said Wednesday she found it hard to believe a hate crime like that could happen in Greenville. She said break-ins at the church have occurred and she thought someone might have accidentally started the fire, then written “Vote Trump” to cover their tracks.

“I just don’t think it has anything to do with Trump,” she said.

Chief Brown said that when analyzing the scene of a fire, investigators look for two “precursors” to determine if accelerant was used.

“If there was a flammable liquid poured in a certain area, that area may be more deeply charred, and if it was poured on a carpet that carpet may still have vapors and liquids in itself,” Brown said.

Greenville Police Chief Delando Wilson announced Wednesday that police had spoken to a person of interest but declined to give any details on the person. On Friday, he confirmed that investigators from the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms had been on the scene and interviewed that same person. He said the person came to the office voluntarily at police request.

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Larrison Campbell is a Greenville native who reports on politics with an emphasis on public health. She received a bachelor’s from Wesleyan University and a master’s from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.Larrison is a 2018 National Press Foundation fellow in public health, a 2019 Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of Massachusetts fellow in health care reporting and a 2019 Center for Health Journalism National Fellow.