Local News

SBI report details events leading to Chatham courthouse fire

Posted May 19, 2010 2:16 p.m. EDT
Updated May 19, 2010 6:47 p.m. EDT

— A state and federal investigation provides new details about the March fire that heavily damaged the landmark Chatham County Courthouse.

The March 25 fire gutted the building, which was built in 1881, and caused its iconic clock tower to collapse. Fire Marshal Thomas Bender ruled the fire was accidentally started by workers involved in an exterior renovation and that the blaze quickly spread in the building's attic.

As firefighters from Pittsboro and surrounding areas battled the flames on March 25, officials called in the State Bureau of Investigation and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to look into the fire's cause. Their report was turned over to Chatham County District Attorney Jim Woodall last week, and WRAL News was allowed to review the report Wednesday.

Mark Gregory Roofing Inc. was hired as a subcontractor on the courthouse renovation project to repair holes and broken seams in the building's copper gutters, according to the report. On the day of the fire, one worker was using a hand-held propane torch to do the repairs, and a second one was on "fire watch" to keep an eye on flying sparks so they could be doused quickly, the report says.

Earlier in the day, while the crew was fixing a split in the gutter on the southwest side of the building, the area started smoking, and one worker poured the contents of his water bottle on it to stop the smoke, the report says.

The crew finished work on the southwest side at about 4:15 p.m. and checked their repairs and for any smoke before leaving. A heat detector in the attic activated about 25 minutes later, followed by a smoke alarm in a third-floor hallway outside the judge's chambers, according to the report.

"The wind direction and natural ventilation of the building may have precluded the fire watch from seeing a spark or flame that was pushed into the framing of the boxing or attic from an exterior viewpoint," the report says. "This would allow the flame to grow and spread undetected in the attic until the fire was larger."

Construction workers for subcontractor DBA Construction tried to use fire extinguishers on the flames but couldn't stop the fire from spreading, the report says. One worker also went into the courthouse to get people out.

“The fire was caused by hot-work repairs to the gutter system in the southwest corner of the courthouse," the report concluded. "The torch heated the gutter and underlying combustible material, leading to a small, undetected fire that spread rapidly into a large fire in the attic due to the wind and the combustible materials in the attic.”

Woodall and Bender said they don't plan to file any criminal charges because the fire was an accident.

"It does appear to be an accident. There could be some civil litigation, so I won't have any comment on anything other than to say it's not a criminal case," Woodall said.

Chatham County spokeswoman Debra Henzey said insurance companies are still trying to work out the details of payments to the county, so it's too early to talk about potential lawsuits

County officials plan to rebuild the courthouse, and the Board of Commissioners on Monday named a 21-member task force to recommend uses for the building once it reopens. The county this fall will break ground on a new Judicial Center, which will house all local courts once it opens.

"It's affected everybody, but we think it's going to be rebuilt," Woodall said. "It will be a courthouse that we'll use again someday."