Thursday, November 4, 2004

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. yesterday toured the charred shell of the Prince George’s County Courthouse, while fire investigators tried to determine the cause of a blaze that decimated the historic building Wednesday.

A cold drizzle greeted the governor as he made his way around the smoldering remains of the 123-year-old courthouse, and he promised that his administration would help in rebuilding the facility.

“Obviously, the state has a commitment to this courthouse, to this county,” said Mr. Ehrlich, whose lieutenant governor — Michael S. Steele — is a Prince George’s resident.

The governor said state officials will be talking with County Executive Jack B. Johnson about rebuilding the courthouse, adding that one option is a bond issue to generate $30 million to $40 million for the project.

Mr. Johnson has pledged to rebuild the structure, and the county has a $100 million insurance policy that could cover the cost.

Mr. Steele toured the scene with the governor yesterday, thanking those who helped extinguish the fire Wednesday morning.

“We certainly want to thank firefighters from around the region … that came to help the Prince George’s [fire department],” the lieutenant governor said. “They did an exceptional job containing it and shutting it down.”

More than 160 firefighters battled the four-alarm blaze for about three hours. The fire apparently started shortly before 8:30 a.m. Wednesday in an attic where electricians were working, fire officials said. No critical records were lost in the fire, county officials said.

Yesterday, investigators sifted through the rubble of the red-brick building and interviewed construction workers. The county’s courthouse complex was closed yesterday.

The building, known as the Duvall Wing of the complex, had been undergoing a $27 million renovation. The project began in May 2003 and was scheduled for completion in January.

Officials said more than 55 construction workers were on the site when the fire started.

“Investigators will be talking to everybody that happened to be in the area that could have any information at all,” said Capt. Chauncey Bowers of the Prince George’s County Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department.

Fire spokesman Mark Brady yesterday said structural engineers have determined that many of the building’s interior walls and brick facade are still sturdy.

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

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

Mr. Steele yesterday lamented the loss of the site.

“Certainly, as a Prince Georgian, to come by this building, to do business in this building and to watch it go up in flames was very heart-wrenching,” he said.

“There is a lot of history here, a lot of great cases, a lot of great trials, attorneys and judges served the public in this institution, here in this building,” said Mr. Steele, a lawyer. “So the idea of rebuilding and the commitment of returning its glory is there from the governor … and certainly the county.”

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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