Year in Review – #1: Top Story of Year

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History in flames, residents in fear

By The Staff

At 5:35 a.m. Monday, Aug. 4, a woman on her way to work called 911 to report that the historic Lancaster County Courthouse was on fire. Firefighters who rushed to the scene hoped for the best, but arrived to find the building engulfed in flames.

Lancaster County Emergency Management Director Morris Russell learned how serious the fire was as he was driving to the scene. He heard firefighters already there ask for more water pressure.

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

And serious it was.

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.

The roof was destroyed as were many of the contents of the courthouse, including the original wooden judge’s bench, dating back to 1828, and portraits in the courtroom, where the fire started.

But much was saved, including drawings created by prisoners held at the courthouse between 1865 and 1867 and 96 percent of all civil case files from Clerk of Court Jeff Hammond’s office on the bottom floor of the courthouse.

More importantly, the building, which was designed by Robert Mills, who is referred to as the first professionally trained architect to be born in America, was deemed structurally sound.

Almost immediately, officials began planning to restore the courthouse, which was constructed in 1828. The building was insured for $1.8 million and its contents insured for $91,000.

But before the smoke even cleared, the 6th Circuit Solicitor’s Office, in the shadow of the courthouse on West Dunlap Street, was gutted by fire.

There was never any doubt that an arsonist was to blame for the two fires.

Around all court-related facilities, security was tightened – and then mandated by S.C. Supreme Court Justice Jean Toal for around the clock, every day.

In the weeks ahead, law enforcement offered rewards for information leading to the arrest of a suspect. Some residents criticized the county for not having security and sprinkler systems in the two buildings, and County Council decided to build a new courthouse – to be paid with either a penny sales tax or from property taxes.

Even before the fire, officials were pushing the referendum, saying it was time to build a new courthouse with more courtroom and office space as well as better security measures to ensure the protection of court officials and others during trials. Only then, there was no plan to build if the penny tax didn’t pass.

Between Aug. 21 and Sept. 18, four people were robbed and one woman robbed and kidnapped within blocks of each other. Three of the crimes happened between Sept. 11-18. People in Lancaster were feeling under attack again.

On Sept. 18, Martavious Semaj Carter, 17, was jailed in connection with the string of crimes.

The next day, Lancaster Police officials announced that Carter had been charged with two counts of arson in connection with the fires at the Lancaster County Courthouse and 6th Circuit Solicitor’s Office.

Officials were tightlipped about what evidence may exist in the case, but expressed confidence that the teen was responsible for the fires and the string of robberies. Today, Carter remains jailed, awaiting trial.

On Nov. 4, county voters approved a referendum to build a new courthouse, which is expected to cost about $33 million. The county plans to start collecting the tax in May.  

Officials have talked about converting the old courthouse into a museum once it’s restored, but no firm plans have been made for the historic building.