Slideshow Included: Courthouse burns

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By The Staff

Blackened roof beams hovered like a skeleton above the brick walls of the Lancaster County Courthouse on Tuesday.

The beams and a few slate shingles are all that’s left of the roof of the historic building, built in 1828.

The courtroom was set on fire early Monday morning by an arsonist. The building’s original judge’s bench is a charred shell.

Water dripped from the ceiling of the courtroom and sunlight shone on burned case files and stacks of arrest warrants on Tuesday afternoon.

“Whoever did this, they need to be strung up by their toes at the courthouse by one of those rafters that survived,” County Councilman Fred Thomas said.

The arsonist apparently got into the building through a front window and left through the back door on the bottom floor.

The fire likely burned for some time before it was discovered, Lancaster Fire Department Chief Chris Nunnery said.

A restoration company worked Tuesday to salvage files from the bottom floor.

The bottom floor’s plaster ceilings bubbled in the heat of the blaze, and water trickled down the walls from the second floor. Industrial fans blew through the rooms Tuesday afternoon to dry soaked carpets and wet documents.

Police had no suspects Tuesday, Lancaster Police Chief Hugh White said.

The State Law Enforcement Division and federal bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are also investigating the fire.

Fighting the fire

Officials said the fire was called in about 5:25 a.m. by a woman who drove past on her way to work.

When police and firefighters arrived, there were no holes in the roof, but heavy smoke was pouring out from under the eaves, Nunnery said.

Eight fire departments – city fire, and the Antioch, Camp Creek, McDonald Green, Elgin, Gooches, Riverside and Shiloh Zion volunteer departments fought the blaze. Two ladder trucks, one from the city and the other from Elgin, were used to spray the roof.

Lancaster County Emergency Management Director Morris Russell said he was hoping for the best as he drove to answer the call. He said he was remembering how two years ago, someone tried unsuccessfully to burn the building by throwing a homemade bomb through a window.

Then he heard firefighters on the scene asking for more water pressure and got a call from Nunnery.

“He said, ‘I got a fire in the attic,’” Russell said. “I said, ‘Oh my God.’ I knew we had a serious fire.”

Smoke later billowed out of holes in the roof, as firefighters shot a mixture of fire-suppressing foam and water onto the fire. At least 100,000 gallons of water were used to fight the blaze, Russell said.

Firefighters set up a command center in the parking lot next to the courthouse.

The local American Red Cross chapter was on hand to supply water and food for emergency workers.

The S.C. State Guard also assisted at the scene.

“I felt sick,” Russell said. “That’s part of our heritage.”

Nunnery said it’s the type of call every firefighter dreads.

“This is a part of Lancaster,” Nunnery said. “It’s a sickening feeling even to get the initial call.”

Courthouse survived before

The courthouse was designed by Robert Mills, who also had a hand in designing the Washington Monument. The last witchcraft trial in the United States was held at the courthouse in 1813, said local historian Jo Williams.

Probate records were burned at the courthouse during the Civil War era, and in April 2006, someone threw a “Molotov cocktail” through a back window of the bottom floor, causing minor damage to an office.

The courthouse sustained damage, but remained standing during the Charleston earthquake in 1886. Five rods were inserted into the building’s flooring to repair damage.

Although severely damaged by this fire, officials say the 180-year-old building can be saved.

But many Lancaster County residents are angry about what happened.

“Whoever did this, they’re in a world of trouble. You have brought the wrath of the law down upon you,” said Lancaster County Council Chairman Rudy Carter.

“All those years of history down the drain,” Carter said.

Bystanders were shocked as the historic building burned Monday morning. Many stood along the sidewalk in front of the Lancaster County Administration Building across the street, taking pictures or video of the devastation.

Ginger Sowell, a paralegal for the solicitor’s office, was in disbelief watching her workplace burn.

After getting the all-clear signal later Monday afternoon to enter the building, court officials began salvaging records from their offices.

“I love this building,” Sowell said. “It’s got so much history behind it.”

Local attorney Mandy Powers-Norrell, who lives a few blocks away on Market Street, heard the sirens and knew it was something bad.

“It’s the most shocking thing, but by the grace of God, it hasn’t happened before this,” Powers-Norrell said. “It’s like losing a member of your family.”

South Carolina Insurance News Service is offering a reward for any information leading to the arrest and indictment of persons setting arson fires. Call toll free (800) 92-ARSON

Crimestoppers also offers awards for any information that leads to the arrest of the person or persons responsible. Call (888) 559-TIPS.

Contact senior reporter Jenny Hartley at jhartley@thelancasternews.com or at (803) 283-1151