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Courthouse blaze was accidental, fire marshal says

A construction worker using a soldering iron to repair gutters accidentally started the Chatham County courthouse fire, Chatham County Fire Marshal Thomas Bender said Tuesday.

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PITTSBORO, N.C. — Fire authorities now know what caused a blaze that destroyed Chatham County's historic courthouse last Thursday. What's still unclear, however, is the century-old fixture's future.

Fire Marshal Thomas Bender said Tuesday that a worker using a soldering iron to repair gutters on the building's exterior accidentally started the fire, which started in the soffit area of the roof and quickly spread to the clock tower and east side of the roof.

Bender said no charges are expected.

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

Workers with a roofing subcontractor tried to extinguish the fire but were unsuccessful, said Todd Snyder, vice president of Progressive Contracting Co., which had been restoring the building. He declined to name the subcontractor.

The State Bureau of Investigation will release an official report within the next few weeks, Bender said.

Meanwhile, the county's Board of Commissioners will meet Wednesday to discuss relocating courthouse workers and the future of the courthouse, which was built in 1881.

The county already had plans to start building a new justice center in a few months.

“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,” Chairwoman Sally Kost said.

Insurance companies are conducting multiple investigations on the fire, which has stalled the cleanup process and reports from engineers to determine if the building can be saved.

"Everything is sort of standing still here. We'd like to make progress," County Manager Charlie Horne said. "Progress at its best is going to be incremental."

Meanwhile, weekly sessions of Superior Court in Chatham County will continue to be at the District Court building across the street, Judge Allen Baddour said Monday. These will include sessions to hear motions and pleas for cases.

“However, it is too early to know when Superior Court can resume jury trials. We are hard at work with the Administrative Office of the Courts and Chatham County officials to resume these as soon as possible,” Baddour said.

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Erin Hartness, Reporter
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