Pittsboro, N.C. — 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.
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.
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.
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.