Local News

Fire severely damages Chatham County courthouse

Posted March 25, 2010
Updated January 22, 2011

— The third floor and the clock tower of the Chatham County Courthouse were severely damaged in a fire Thursday afternoon.

Chatham County fire officials and the State Bureau of Investigation are looking into what caused the fire, which Pittsboro Fire Chief Darryl Griffin said started in the attic. Lower levels of the courthouse sustained major water and smoke damage.

The courthouse had been undergoing major exterior renovations for the past two months, with extensive scaffolding covering the entire building, according to city spokeswoman Debra J. Henzey.

Chatham County Courthouse on Fire Fire damages Chatham County Courthouse

Witnesses said they started seeing smoke in the area around 4:15 p.m.

Firefighters responded to reports of a fire in the upper part of the courthouse around 4:45 p.m., Henzey said. By 5 p.m., heavy smoke was billowing out of the clock tower, which was covered in scaffolding.

Firefighters were expected to remain on the scene overnight, as hot spots continued to pop up.

If you have photos of video from the scene, send them to us.

Everyone working in the building was evacuated safely, Henzey said.

Judge Allen Baddour was in the courthouse when the fire started. He said a fire alarm went off at 4:30 p.m. Baddour could see flames in his third floor office. He lost items like his robe, diplomas and family photos.

The building, located at 12 East St., has been the site of an ongoing dispute about a videotape purportedly showing former presidential candidate John Edwards in a sexual encounter. Officials told WRAL News that the materials in the case are locked in a vault away the courthouse.

 PittsboroCourthouse fire Locals react to Chatham County courthouse fire

Moving forward, the courthouse is going to have some struggles because vital equipment was destroyed, Orange County District Attorney Jim Woodall said.

"I'm afraid all our records, all our files, all our computers have been destroyed," Woodall said. Copies of those documents do exist in other places, he said.

"It may take a little while. We'll be able to rebuilt everything," he said.

Some court sessions are likely to be moved to Siler City. Woodall said he will meet with the Administrative Office of the Court on Friday to talk about the best way to proceed.

Phone lines at the court were transferred to Orange County.

The Chatham County Social Services Building, 102 Camp Drive, was opened as a shelter for any residents had problems breathing because of the smoke. Henzey said it was closed around 8 p.m. after no residents reported breathing problems.

Some local residents gathered downtown, watching in disbelief as the building burned.

"It is the heart of the community. It is the symbol of Pittsboro," local business owner Katie O'Leary said.

Built in 1881, the courthouse is listed on the National Historic Registry, Chatham County Historical Association Jane Pyle said. The building has been renovated several times. The most recent renovations, which included new windows and repairs to bricks, were expected to cost about $415,000

The Historical Association had a small document room in the courthouse. Pyle said it is unclear if any of the items, which included original Colonial documents, were damaged.

"I'm just sad for the county, for the town, because I think it's the most historic building in the country," Woodall said.

The jury video that all prospective jurors in the state are shown was shot at the Chatham County Courthouse, Woodall said. "It was filmed there because it was one of the most beautiful courtrooms in the state," he said. 

"I see the heart of the county being cut out from it," Pittsboro Mayor Randolph Voller said.

Still, Voller said he remains hopeful that the area can rebuild. "We are going to come out of this and make something better," he said.

County commissioners had already approved plans for a new courthouse facility. Construction is scheduled to begin in the fall.

The traffic circle around the courthouse will be closed Friday, Henzey said. The closure will affect bus and car riders headed to Pittsboro Elementary, Horton and Northwood. Drivers can use an alternate route through the Highway 87 Bypass that comes by Al’s Diner.

Bus routes inside the barricaded area in downtown Pittsboro will also not be able to run. These families will need to provide transportation for their children, officials said.

Pittsboro Elementary and Northwood High School will operate on their normal schedules, but Horton Middle School will start at 10 a.m. Staff should report to work at their normal time.

For safety reasons, the public is advised not to walk around the courthouse.

36 Comments

This story is closed for comments. Comments on WRAL.com news stories are accepted and moderated between the hours of 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. Monday through Friday.

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  • goodolboyz84 Apr 1, 10:08 a.m.

    to phllpstylt. Your Quote on: "let the water feed the fire as it produces steam and spreads throughout the unburnt parts of the building" What part of the Firefighting Essential Book did you get that from? You didn't.. Its not true. For a Certified Firefighter you sure don't know Fire Behavior. With a statement like that, you should lose your certification!

  • goodolboyz84 Apr 1, 9:43 a.m.

    to phllpstylt. I find it hard to beleive you are a fireman/emt. If so you have been in the business long enough to know what is reported is not always correct. The Fire Department was notified at 4:43, first truck out the door within a minute, and onscene within a minute. 2 minute repsonse time from time of dispatch. If you still find this hard to beleive, stop by, they are a nice bunch of guys, be glad to show you.

    I find it hard to beleive you are a fireman personally, most of the time one brother does not attack another. Which construction crew do you work for, or are you the one responsible?

  • phllpstylr Mar 30, 6:07 p.m.

    to everyone one who lives in the community of Pittsboro...i am a certified firefighter and emt....i think that its plum rediculous to point fingers at a contractor doing his job when accidentally a flame was set ablaze..the quetioning needs to start with the fire dept. right across the street...u would think that when a fire is contained into a certain one portion of a building it could be easily extinguished...instead lets throw up ladder trucks and turn it into a defensive attack and let the water feed the fire as it produces steam and spreads throughout the unburnt parts of the building..but as long as the ladder trucks go up in the air and everyone sees that then the fire dept. does its justice...well thats where the outlooks are mistaked...certify you fireman...and train them....and response times usually should be under 5 min. not 45 min... thats questions that should be asked...needless to say the contractor workin made a spark..well he was doin is his job which turned into an a

  • wildcat Mar 26, 4:25 p.m.

    Some say the fire started because of a welding issue. The cost should go to the contractors who were welding and not the tax payers of Chatham county.

  • wildcat Mar 26, 4:01 p.m.

    Does anyone think WRAL could edit their stories before posting??

    What for? I see great comments here.

  • wildcat Mar 26, 3:44 p.m.

    maybe they "lost" my court date ;-)

    Don't count on it. There will still be court for criminals. A sad time for Chatham County.

  • jgimondo Mar 26, 11:53 a.m.

    my question is... where do i go in early May when i have to fight a speeding ticket? maybe they "lost" my court date ;-)

  • affirmativediversity Mar 26, 11:22 a.m.

    My thoughts are with the people who work there AND the people of Chatham County whose important records and information was housed there.

    Although the building was a nice historic one...Sorry, I rarely shed a tear when forces greater than I rid us of an inaccessible monstrosity...try getting around one of these old courthouses in a wheelchair!

  • mom2five Mar 26, 8:10 a.m.

    other than the horrible outcome of a historic site obviously loved by all who lived near... Does anyone think WRAL could edit their stories before posting??

  • alwayslovingu30 Mar 25, 7:59 p.m.

    wow now they can spend some of that Rusty money they collect from all the court cases that come thru there

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