- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 3, 2004

A raging fire yesterday morning consumed a historic section of the Prince George’s County Courthouse in Upper Marlboro, just before completion of a $27 million restoration project.

The fire gutted the wooden interior of the two-story building but caused no serious injuries nor damage to vital court records.

Still, the four-alarm fire severely damaged the 123-year-old landmark, considered the symbolic heart of the county government.

“It is a great loss to all of us,” County Executive Jack Johnson said while standing across the street from the smoldering building. “I want citizens to know that we are going to rebuild this building.”

Other county officials also pledged to rebuild the old courthouse in the 14000 block of Main Street in the center of Upper Marlboro, which has been the site of the courthouse since 1720. A fire destroyed the original wooden courthouse and yesterday’s blaze destroyed the second courthouse, built in 1881.

The fire apparently started shortly before 8:30 a.m. in the attic where electricians were working, said Deputy Chief Lt. Col. Marc Bashoor of the Prince George’s County Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department.

However, investigators had not determined the cause or starting point of the fire, he said.

Mr. Johnson, a Democrat, briefly reminisced about how his public-service career began as an assistant state’s attorney working in the old courthouse. He also lamented that just last week he was discussing plans for a ceremony to rededicate the landmark.

The $27 million renovation project began in May 2003 and was scheduled for completion in January 2005. Plans included more courtrooms for the county’s growing caseload.

The court records and historic documents usually kept in the old courthouse had been removed during the renovations, Mr. Johnson said.

The smoke and flames appeared to have caused no significant damage to the new courthouse, which is behind the old courthouse and mostly vacant and unused during renovations. The new courthouse, built in 1991, houses the county’s District Court, Circuit Court and State’s Attorney’s Office.

County officials decided to cancel court today because of the fire. Court typically is not held on Fridays, so cases are expected to resume in the new courthouse Monday.

The entire courthouse building attracted national attention in 1972 when it hosted the five-day trial of Arthur Bremer. He was found guilty of attempting to assassinate Alabama Gov. George Wallace at a political rally in Laurel.

The fire destroyed most of the old courthouse within an hour.

“It spread very quickly,” said Lt. Col. Bashoor. “Within half an hour, it was through the top of the building, and it took an hour to make sure it did not spread.”

By 10:30 a.m., the interior of the old courthouse was a scene of charred wood and glowing cinders. Most of the roof had either burned away or collapsed. The building’s brick exterior walls and pillars were blackened but still standing; they formed only a shell around the structure’s hollow remains.

A firefighter said construction debris in the building and access points blocked by the renovation work hampered the effort to extinguish the flames. Fire officials also said the effort was complicated by winds gusts of up to 30 mph that fanned the flames.

About 165 firefighters battled the blaze. Two firefighters sustained minor injuries: one pulled a hamstring and the other suffered from heat exhaustion. They were treated at the scene, officials said.

Will Campbell, one of about six Star Electric employees in the courthouse attic when the fire began, said he did not know how it started.

“I never smelled the smoke,” said Mr. Campbell, 33.

Another employee said he and co-workers saw the smoke and exited the building before firefighters arrived.

The flames spread quickly across the wooden-roofed structure, then engulfed the second floor and quickly burned through the wooden floorboards to reach the first floor, Lt. Col. Bashoor said.

The fire also created a “traffic nightmare,” said Chief Michael Gonnela of the Upper Marlboro Police Department.

Police closed the streets surrounding the courthouse, including Main, Water and Elm streets, which are the major routes through the town.

The Prince George’s County Police Department also closed Route 725 at Route 202, preventing traffic from entering the town and frustrating some commuters.

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