Courthouse fire blamed on worker

March 30, 2010 8:31:28 AM PDT
Chatham County Fire Marshal Thomas Bender said Tuesday that the investigation of the fire at Pittsboro's historic Chatham County Courthouse last Thursday shows the fire started when a construction worker using a soldering iron to repair gutters accidentally sparked the blaze.

"The State Bureau of Investigation will release an official report within the next few weeks, but we have reached a finding. A thorough investigation of the evidence led us to a conclusion fairly quickly," Bender said. "It is common for rumors about the cause to circulate throughout the community when you have a disaster of this magnitude. Our job is to conduct a thorough, unbiased investigation to document the cause before we announce it to the public."

Bender said the worker was doing renovation work in a project to overhaul the exterior of the courthouse that began earlier this year. It was the first big renovation project on the building since the early 1990's. The fire started in the soffit area of the roof and quickly spread to the clock tower and east side of the roof.

"The wind and the old heart pine timbers provided highly flammable fuel which contributed significantly to the intensity of the fire in the building," Bender said.

County Manager Charlie Horne said in the same statement that the county is relieved to get confirmation of the cause, but said much work remains prior to moving forward.

"The county does have property insurance coverage on all of our facilities," he said.

The courthouse was built in the 1880s and has been the center of Pittsboro for generations. In addition to its court duties, it also served as a community historical museum. Officials said this weekend that the fire didn't destroy the museum, and many valuable artifacts have been recovered.

Local leaders have said they want to repair the building if it can be done.

"We still do not have an estimate of the potential rebuilding cost until we know for sure what parts of the existing courthouse can be saved," said Sally Kost, chair of the Board of Commissioners.

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