10 YEARS LATER: Reflecting on fire that damaged Chatham's historic courthouse

Posted 4/10/20

PITTSBORO — Late in the afternoon of March 25, 2010, a construction worker with Progressive Contracting Company, which had been enlisted by Chatham County to renovate the historic Chatham County …

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10 YEARS LATER: Reflecting on fire that damaged Chatham's historic courthouse

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PITTSBORO — Late in the afternoon of March 25, 2010, a construction worker with Progressive Contracting Company, which had been enlisted by Chatham County to renovate the historic Chatham County Courthouse, aimed a soldering iron at a gutter high atop the southwestern portion of the old building.

Since early February of that year, the then-129-year-old courthouse had been surrounded by scaffolding and the structure’s familiar clock tower wrapped in protective material, with long-planned renovations — including replacing windows, repairing masonry and stucco, and replacing wood siding and trim — under way and expected to be completed in a few more months.

At a cost of approximately $415,395, the renovations were the first major ones undertaken on the historic building since the early 1990s.

With quitting time looming that Thursday afternoon, at somewhere around 4:30 the worker, armed with a hot soldering iron, turned his attention to a gutter.

That’s when the trouble started.

Hot solder dripped onto bare wood, the scorching binding agent quickly drawing flames from the wood which were fueled by gusty late-March winds. The flames spread fast.

‘It didn’t take long to see the courthouse was a tinderbox’

At those same moments, recalled the then-chairman of the county Board of Commissioners Sally Kost, commissioners were in a room inside the Courthouse Annex building just across the street from the courthouse, engaged in a mandatory ethics training session.

Vicki McConnell, the county’s finance director, suddenly interrupted the meeting, bringing commissioners the stunning news.

The courthouse was on fire.

“That event was really something,” recalled then-county manager Charlie Horne, who’s now retired.

“We all rushed to the Annex’s balcony and watched in horror,” said Kost, who now lives in Colorado.

From their position standing on the breezeway of the Annex building, commissioners and other county staff gathered there had an unimpeded view of the quickly unfolding situation.

“It didn’t take long to see the courthouse was a tinderbox,” Horne recalled.

‘A deep sense of sadness’

Although renovations were under way in the courthouse, and the work often noisy, court and other daily routines continued uninterrupted inside the building. In addition to the upstairs courtroom and related offices, the building housed the county probation and parole office, district attorney’s office and, in a small corner of the southwestern portion of the ground floor, the Chatham County Historical Museum.

In the weeks just prior to the fire, the historic courthouse had been the setting of court hearings related to former Senator John Edwards and the alleged existence of incriminating video tapes of Edwards and his mistress, Rielle Hunter, the proceedings drawing national news crews to town.

“There were ridiculous conspiracy theories that the fire was deliberately started to destroy evidence, sex tapes,” Kost said. “I believe it was CNN that called to check on the whereabouts and condition of these tapes.”

On that early spring day, the folks who worked in the courthouse were conducting business as usual.

“We had been in a Superior Court Criminal Administrative session,” recalled Superior Courth Judge Allen Baddour, “so things had been fairly busy that morning. By mid- to late-afternoon, court had ended and I was in chambers, which was up on the third floor on the southeast corner.”

Baddour was meeting with an attorney when he heard the fire alarm.

“Honestly, with all the renovation work going on at that time, this was a fairly regular occurrence, and we didn’t really respond, though the attorney I was meeting with left,” he said. “It was too loud to continue talking. The alarm continued, which was unusual, so I grabbed my keys and went down the stairs.”

Baddour exited the building from the east-side door and, turning around and looking up, he saw the fire.

“I immediately ran back in the building with Lisa Robinson, a probation officer, to clear the building,” he said. “Once outside, we stood and watched things. I distinctly remember wondering whether I would get back in the building that evening, or whether I’d have to wait until morning. After a few hours, it became clear — I wouldn’t go back in at all. My thinking shifted from worrying about my computer, my robe and my personal effects to feeling relief that everyone was safe, but also a deep sense of sadness at the loss of such an iconic Chatham institution.”

‘An audible gasp’

A bit farther down U.S. 64, Bett Wilson Foley, a Pittsboro native and later a commissioner on Pittsboro’s Town Board, was leaving work at Habitat for Humanity.

“I remember hearing sirens,” Foley said, “and I ran out to the street and saw smoke pouring out of the historic Chatham County Courthouse.”

She said she remembers grabbing her camera and running toward the courthouse.

“By this time,” Foley said, “the smoke had intensified into black, billowy clouds.”

Onlookers started gathering in the vicinity of the burning building, which had stood as the epicenter of Pittsboro, the county seat, since its construction in 1881, watching as flames and smoke intensified.

“A group huddled together around the circle in horror,” recalled Foley. “For the most, part people watched in silence, like we were in a collective sorrow. Firefighters seemed to understand this and allowed the crowd to stay, at a safe distance. They were very respectful. When bright orange flames shot out of the smoke, there was an audible gasp.”

In those moments, Foley said, efforts to extinguish the massive fire “seemed futile.”

‘I got my gear out and started filming’

Foley and many others at the scene, cameras drawn, were snapping pictures. Triangle area television crews were en route and would soon be broadcasting. But the first moving images of the blaze were captured by local documentary filmmaker Mike O’Connell, who first observed the smoke driving home from his job at UNC-TV in Chapel Hill, where he was a staff videographer.

“Nearing town, I saw smoke,” O’Connell recalled. “I said to myself, ‘That looks like smoke coming from the courthouse.’ As I got closer, across from the Hardees I said to myself, ‘That IS smoke coming from the courthouse...I need to shoot this.”

O’Connell was driving a work vehicle and he had his camera gear with him.

“Quickly, I got my gear out and started filming,” he said. “I think I was the only television media person on the scene at that time. The police didn’t even have the police tape up yet. I was able to film right next to the firemen as they deployed hoses and sprang into action on the southwest corner. I could see and filmed the wind fanning flames licking out from under the southwest roof corner. At that moment I remember thinking ‘Do your job, keep it simple, stay focused, pay attention.’”

‘It seemed futile’

At 4:43 p.m., Pittsboro Fire Chief Daryl Griffin, a veteran firefighter since 1981, would soon be battling the biggest blaze of his career.

“A gentleman ran up the street,” Griffin recounted a few days after the fire for a story published in the April 1, 2010, issue of The Chatham News, “and told us there were flames coming out of the courthouse roof.”

Pittsboro firefighters, paid and volunteer, sprang into action and moments later, Griffin and his crew arrived at the south corner of the building in the first fire truck on the scene.

“A little while into the fire, it was obvious we had a water supply issue,” said Horne. “We didn’t have fire apparatus to work a fire of that magnitude, so mutual aid agreements kicked in.”

Pittsboro firefighters soon had help from a long roster of area fire departments: Siler City, North Chatham, Moncure, Bonlee, Silk Hope, Goldston, Deep River, West Sanford, Northview, Apex and Parkwood, with other departments on stand-by.

“What I remember most was how the fire departments from all the communities worked together to try to get the fire under control and to save the structure,” said Kost.

“It seemed futile,” Foley remembers, “watching firefighters battle this huge fire with their small hoses. But they got it contained.”

It would be several more hours, though, well into early Friday morning, before firefighters could declare victory.

Ladder trucks from Siler City and North Chatham fire departments arrived and, by 5:16 p.m., less than an hour after the fire was sparked, firefighters were aiming hoses from above the structure.

They would continue to battle the blaze for hours, until about an hour and a half past midnight; after the clock tower had collapsed into the upstairs courtroom, the blaze finally came under control.

‘A hundred thoughts’

As Horne watched the event unfolding, his mind was reeling.

“A hundred thoughts immediately popped into my head,” he said. “Is everyone out? Are firefighters safe? Where will alternate meetings and offices need to be? How did it start? What about recovery? Will anything be left for reconstruction?”

Soon, many would be wondering if the courthouse, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979, would be rebuilt.

“The community was in mourning after this loss,” Foley said, “not knowing then whether or not it would be restored.”

“It was a rough time for the community,” said Kost, “but just after the fire, the commissioners were committed to including residents of Chatham County in the decision process.”

“We went through a lengthy process of public discourse about what to do with the building, and eventually the public and the county commissioners agreed to rebuild the courthouse,” said Baddour, for whom the historic courthouse had always been a special place.

As an assistant district attorney, his office was in that building, and he lived a block and a half from the building during that time.

“Often, after dinner or on a weekend afternoon, I would walk my young children up to the courthouse, to walk around, see the courtroom, and maybe grab a file to work on after they were in bed,” he said. “It had a special place in my heart and the hearts of my family.”

Convening about a week after the fire, county commissioners voted to rebuild the courthouse. The decision was unanimous.

“I was really glad for that,” Baddour said, “and also that my good friend Taylor Hobbs and his dad, Grimm, [both of the Pittsboro firm Hobbs Architects] would be in charge of the reconstruction.”

“There was never a question about rebuilding the courthouse,” Kost recalled. “It was built so that if burned, the structural integrity of the building remained. One of the biggest decisions was how to purpose the old courtroom, respecting the historical significance, the needs of the community, and the future needs of the court.”

Sifting through what was left of the building in the aftermath of the fire, county officials found a lot of good news. Exterior walls remained sound. The Chatham Historical Association salvaged hundreds of artifacts stored in the building which had sustained little or no damage.

And a few days after the fire, Kost and other county officials toured the inside of the burnt building with then-Congressman Bob Etheridge.

“I was amazed,” Kost said, “that signage on the first floor, as well as light fixtures, remained.”

‘Truly a treasure’

Three years after the fire, the rebuilt courthouse — retaining the second floor courtroom and now boasting a larger ground floor museum of local history — opened on April 20, 2013.

“The rebuilt courthouse is truly a treasure,” said Baddour. “It is a masterful recreation of the historic building, with important and appropriate accommodations to modern needs, such as audio visual needs.”

Though the Historic Courthouse is “rarely used for court these days,” Baddour said, “we do occasionally hold civil sessions of court. I’m really glad we rebuilt the ground floor as we did, to accommodate the museum. It’s a great resource.”

Ten years later, many close to the events of that day still reflect on the old building, the fire that nearly toppled it, and the resilience of the building.

“I think about the old courthouse with great fondness,” he said. “I think about it around this time every year, and also in January, when the Chatham Justice Center opened. Both dates give me a reason to remember where we’ve been, and where we’ve come. We were lucky to have been on the way to a new courthouse even before the fire, and had visionary leadership in Chatham County that saw the needs of the court system and met those needs, so that we can serve well the citizens of Chatham.”

Kost, likewise, still reflects on the day the courthouse burned and the decisions commissioners faced in the immediate aftermath, though this year — the 10th anniversary of the fire — was a bit different, the former county commissioner said.

“With all that is going on in the world,” said Kost, “this is the first March 24th that I didn’t think about that day, and how devastating it was to the community.”

“As I drive by going through town,” O’Connell said, “I think about how beautifully it has been restored. I haven’t been back inside in years, but knowing it’s there is fantastic. A community is more than a building or a place; it’s also shared experience. I believe that when presented with a great challenge, people rise to the occasion. I saw that then and I see that around me now.”

O’Connell’s documentary about the fire and the re-building of the courthouse, a co-production between UNC-TV and Haw River Films called “The Courthouse,” is available to watch for free anytime at https://www.pbs.org/video/the-courthouse-documentary-mv5bz5/

“I shared it via social media last week around the 10th anniversary,” said O’Connell. “People seemed to appreciate that. One of my goals was to leave behind a record for those that come after us. Part of my research was going through Chatham News and Record newspapers, some as old as the 1890’s and some even older. Just like the journalists back then, I think it’s worthy to document our time here in this beautiful town. I feel fortunate to have been able to have done so.”

‘Full of steel’

O’Connell, in documenting the rebuilding, observed that the old building — 139 years old now — came back not only restored, but stronger.

“Architects Taylor and Grimsley Hobbs were fascinating,” O’Connell said, “as it was their restoration project when the fire occurred. They didn’t seem to flinch and continued methodically through the rebuilding. A lot of the nuts and bolts of the rebuilding process are in the film. Grimsley explains what a wooden ‘fire joist’ is and how they worked to save the brick walls decades after being installed. The highly skilled and talented carpenters and craftsman from that era are much like the ones who rebuilt it in our time. That courthouse will never burn again. It’s full of steel, built like a fortress.”

Randall Rigsbee can be reached at rigsbee@chathamnr.com.

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