- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 1, 2004

A fire tore through a section of the District’s federal courthouse in Northwest early yesterday morning after a paint sprayer that a construction worker was using ignited during renovations near several judges’ chambers.

The blaze at the E. Barrett Prettyman federal courthouse destroyed three offices on the third floor, said Alan Etter, a spokesman for the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department. One firefighter battling the blaze was treated at the scene for smoke inhalation.

The fire also caused water damage on the lower floors and smoke damage up to the sixth floor. “They’ll probably have to repaint all those floors,” Mr. Etter said.

“Three judges’ chambers were totally destroyed,” Mr. Etter said. “It’s not like they had any sensitive documents or anything there. That stuff was removed. But because the wing was under renovation, it’s real hard for the investigators to put a dollar estimate on the losses.”

The construction worker told investigators that the paint sprayer he was using sparked, Mr. Etter said. Flames spread quickly because of flammable liquids in the rooms. The blaze, which was ruled accidental, was contained to the chambers, he said.

Aside from broken windows, the building at 333 Constitution Ave. did not display any signs of damage yesterday afternoon. Yellow caution tape surrounded a pile of ruined furniture, and two recycling bins of ruined law books and other papers stood outside the courthouse.

When firefighters arrived at the building shortly after 12:45 a.m., they could not tell it was on fire until they entered and saw smoke billowing from the doors of the damaged wing, Mr. Etter said.

“The whole area was filled with paint thinner and other flammable liquids,” he said. “That made it spread fast. I was kind of surprised myself that they had painters working in there at midnight, but I guess they didn’t want to disturb people during working hours.”

Four teams of firefighters extinguished the blaze within 30 minutes.

The firefighters smashed several windows on the third floor, venting the heat and throwing debris into the street.

They also opened windows and installed fans on the upper floors to clear the rest of the smoke.

“It’s unusual to have such a big fire in a government building,” Mr. Etter said. “Given the volume of fire that was present, it’s remarkable they were able to take care of it in half an hour.”

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