Cause of courthouse fire now focus of investigation

Chtaham County courthouse fire in downtown Pittsboro (Frank Staples/Circle V Fire Department)

March 27, 2010 4:27:23 PM PDT
Nearly 24 hours after a massive fire destroyed the Chatham County courthouse, firefighters were still soaking hotspots at the historic building in the center of Pittsboro.

Gone was the famous clock tower. It toppled around 1:22 a.m. Friday morning into the wreckage of the building's upper floors.

The focus now turns to investigating how the fire started and if the building can be repaired or rebuilt.

Despite the grim appearance of the building, Pittsboro Fire Chief Darryl Griffin said at a Friday afternoon news conference that he was encouraged by what he's seen so far.

"Our first look at the wall structure is pretty good," he said.

Griffin said the walls didn't appear to be buckled by the heat of the fire and the second floor appeared to be intact.

The courthouse was undergoing renovation before the fire, and Griffin said cranes were being brought in to remove scaffolding and pull out debris so firefighters could get at more hotspots.

Chatham County Manager Charlie Horne says removal of debris will begin as soon as Friday evening, with a crane performing the initial work. The removal of debris will help completely extinguish the fire and make it possible for critical personnel to enter the building.

As the investigation and recovery effort continued, traffic around Pittsboro's central roundabout remained closed. Officials said it would likely stay that way through the weekend. Business leaders emphasized that downtown stores were still open. A chainlink fence will be erected around the building to keep out the curious.

Investigation

Many questions remain about how the fire started.

Chief Griffin told ABC11 Eyewitness News it began in the attic. The Chatham County fire marshal and the SBI are investigating.

At the Friday news conference, officials refused to speculate about the cause of the blaze. They said they didn't know if it was related to the renovation work or some other reason.

According to Griffin, the fire department was alerted to the fire by word of mouth, which is common in a small town.

"Actually had a fellow come into the station and told us there was flames coming out of the roof at the courthouse," Griffin said.

Dispatchers also got 911 calls. Click here to listen to the calls

When crews arrived at the courthouse, they found the building heavily involved in fire. Firefighters helped evacuate the building and there were no injuries.

Authorities say scaffolding that was being used in the building's renovation helped fuel the fire.

Chief Griffin explained how at first, he was short of manpower, but a short time later eight other departments from Siler City and as far away as Durham's Parkwood arrived to offer support.

Several fire departments brought water pump trucks to supplement the water supply to fight the fire. John Poteat with Pittsboro Public Utilities said that the town’s water supply was not depleted and that residents should not have been impacted by the event.

Superior Court business affected

The third floor, which housed the Superior Court judges' chambers, and the floor that held court and jury rooms collapsed.

"Chatham is part of the Chatham-Orange Judicial district so it is possible that some of those cases may be moved to Orange County, but we don't know that for sure, it's really up to the judges to make a call on that," Chatham County Public Information Officer Carolyn Miller said.

Officials said Friday some court business would likely go to Siler City and some to Hillsborough, but plans hadn't been finalized.

The Chatham County District Attorney's Office said it remains operational in spite of the fire. Phone calls to the Chatham County District Attorney's Office were being routed to the Hillsborough office and the District Attorney's staff has been divided between the offices in Hillsborough and Pittsboro.

Town looking forward

Most local leaders were adamant that the courthouse was damaged but not lost.

"We very much want to save as much of the building as possible, said County Manager Charlie Horne.

Commissioner Chair Sally Kost said Governor Perdue has pledged the full support of state agencies. Congressman David Price and Congressman Bob Etheridge have also pledged their support to help the community in any way that they can.

She said that the county is still in recovery mode and that it is too soon to focus on the rebuilding efforts and the costs.

"We will try to salvage as much as possible, especially any historical artifacts," she offered.

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