Pittsboro, N.C. — Chatham County officials rented cranes Friday to begin extracting debris from the county's landmark courthouse, which was destroyed by fire a day earlier.
The courthouse's clock tower fell into the building between 1 and 2 a.m., and all the floors collapsed, officials said.
"Everything is just pancaked on top of each other, which is making (the fire) hard to put out," Pittsboro Fire Chief Daryl Griffin said.
Smoke continued to pour from the building Friday afternoon, and flames could be seen through a second-floor window.
"A lot of the materials fell down and compacted, and they sandwiched in there what was still burning,” Chatham County Fire Marshal Thomas Bender said. "We have to put some water on it and see if we get it, and if it doesn’t and flares up, we put more water on it.”
The cause of the fire hasn't been determined, but it appears to have been accidental and started in the attic. The State Bureau of Investigation, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and Chatham County fire officials were investigating.
County and town officials held an emergency meeting Friday morning to discuss what to do with the ravaged town landmark, which was built in 1881 and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
County Manager Charlie Horne said it's too early to determine if the county would rebuild on the site, the middle of a traffic circle at the intersection of U.S. Highways 64 and 15/501.
"That's a decision that the elected officials, the Board of Commissioners, will have to make," Horne said.
"We're going to have to pick up as a community and come together, and this is an opportunity for rebuilding and revitalization," Pittsboro Mayor Randy Voller said.
Structural engineers inspected the building Friday afternoon to determine whether the brick facade could be salvaged and whether the building was safe enough for firefighters to enter.
Horne said damage didn't appear to be as bad as officials initially feared, noting the portion of the building that housed the Chatham County Historical Association escaped fairly unscathed.
"It was built to last when it was built," he said.
The courthouse was wrapped in scaffolding as part of a $415,000 renovation project, and part of the scaffolding collapsed into the building when the clock tower fell, Horne said.
The cranes will pull the scaffolding and large pieces of debris from the interior of the building, he said, allowing firefighters to get to the areas that continue to burn.
"The longer we have to sit here and let it smolder and burn, the less integrity (the structure) is going to have and the more damage we'll have," he said.
Officials planned to erect a chain-link fence around the courthouse to keep people away.
Horne said it's unclear when firefighters, inspectors and other officials will be able to get inside the courthouse to see if any records can be salvaged and to try to determine the cause of the fire.
Many local residents speculated that the fire was tied to the renovation work at the courthouse. Crews with Progressive Contracting were installing replacement windows and restoring the cupola when the fire broke out, vice president Todd Snyder said Friday.
Bender and Griffin said it's too early to tie the renovation work to the blaze, but investigators will look at that possibility.
"It’s always amazing when people look at a burned-up building, and they say there’s nothing to look at. There is a treasure in there to look at for a fire investigator,” Bender said.
Progressive Contractors was "deeply saddened" by the fire and the damage to the courthouse, Snyder said in a statement.
"We continue to offer our assistance and resources in all efforts required to save this historic landmark," he said, adding that the company is cooperating with state and local investigators.
Griffin expressed concern over how far the fire had progressed before firefighters were called.
"It had a good head start on us. When we came out of the station, there were flames coming out of the roof. It could have been burning in the attic for a while," he said.
Witnesses said they first saw smoke in the area around 4:15 p.m. Thursday. A judge said a fire alarm went off at 4:30 p.m., and firefighters were called out around 4:45 p.m.
The courthouse's old-fashioned construction, with heavy timbers and pine roofing, contributed to the spread of the fire and the extent of the damage, Griffin said.
"We were behind the eight ball from the get-go," he said. "First of all, we had to make sure everyone was out and safe and accounted for."
Courts disrupted, documents endangered
Chatham County District Attorney Jim Woodall met with officials from the state Administrative Office of Courts on Friday morning to discuss how to handle criminal prosecutions. Superior Court has been canceled for Monday and Tuesday, and officials will try to hear cases Wednesday in the District Court building across the street, Woodall said.
"It's certainly a big project just to figure out where to operate from, how to operate," Superior Court Judge Allen Baddour said.
Prosecutors lost their files in the fire and building collapse and were working with AOC officials and representatives of local law enforcement agencies and the Chatham County Clerk of Court's Office, which is located in the District Court building, to recreate the case files, Woodall said.
Some of the files were recovered Friday from computers, prompting shouts of joy, Woodall said. Still, he estimated the labor-intensive process of rebuilding other files could take more than 1,000 man-hours.
"There is still going to be a lot of that material that we are just going to have to start from scratch, and we are going to have to do that in several hundred case files," he said. "No cases will be dropped because of the fire."
Old court records, property deeds and other items, some dating to colonial days, were stored in the courthouse, said Walter Harris of the Chatham County Historical Association.
Some of the materials were on display, while most were in cabinets, Harris said, adding that he's unsure how much protection the cabinets provided from the heat and smoke of the fire and the water used to douse the flames.
"We are very anxious to see," he said. "They were stored as best we could. We will be working with (the state Department of) Cultural Resources to see what can be restored."
Horne said recovery of the historical records and the prosecutors' files could slow the overall effort to clear debris and determine a plan for moving forward.
Community mourns loss
The fire continued to disrupt life in Pittsboro on Friday.
The traffic circle around the courthouse was closed, and state troopers and deputies directed traffic around the area. A few downtown businesses were closed because of smoke damage.
Customers at other nearby businesses and county residents stopped near police barricades to gawk at the charred courthouse and reminisce.
"I’ve been a firefighter 36 years. I have never seen – this is sincere – so many people with tears in their eyes. Local people, young people, old people, they were crying (Thursday) night," Bender said.
"The kids are like, 'How are we going to know what time it is?'" Pittsboro resident Petra Beaulieu said, referring to the loss of the clock tower. "We live not too far, and so the bells would ring at lunchtime every day, and it was just very nice to hear that."
Pittsboro native John Wilson said the courthouse was like "a member of our family," saying that he used to run through the halls of the courthouse as a child while his mother was at work.
"It represents Pittsboro. When people think of Pittsboro, they think of driving around the circle around the courthouse," Wilson said. "I'm hoping that they can rebuild it, you know, and try to make it as close to the way it used to be, regardless of what they use it for in the future."
Chatham County officials already planned to move all court functions to a $21.1 million Judicial Center that will be built two blocks south of the courthouse. Construction on the building is expected to start in the fall.
Still, Harris called the courthouse "a cultural icon of the county" and said he would like to see a building remain on its site.
Voller likewise said he is hopeful that the courthouse can be rebuilt.
"In times of tragedy, in these types of situations, this is where you find out a lot about your community, a lot about where people stand and what they’re willing to do to come out of it stronger and better," he said.