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Fire Ravages Historic Courthouse

Pr. George's Landmark Was Under Renovation

By Michael E. Ruane and Jamie Stockwell
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 4, 2004; Page B01

The historic, red-brick Prince George's County courthouse, with its columned facade, 19th-century bell and trademark domed cupola, was gutted by fire yesterday, a few months before it was scheduled to reopen after a $25 million renovation.

Much of the two-story building -- which was largely vacant because of renovation work -- was reduced to a smoking ruin by wind-driven flames that ravaged the interior, claimed large sections of the roof and left only the charred skeleton of the cupola, which had overlooked Main Street in Upper Marlboro for 64 years.

The fire struck as the county neared completion of a $25 million renovation to the old court building. The cause has not been determined. (Mark E. Brady -- Prince George's County Fire/emergency Medical )

Courthouse Fire

The cupola's 124-year-old bell fell through the second floor during the fire and was buried in the rubble, officials said.

County investigators said late yesterday that they had not determined the cause of the fire or exactly where it originated, though it began on the right side of the building. The 151,000-square-foot courthouse became a wing -- the Duvall Wing -- of the county's Criminal Court Complex in 1991, when a modern, 360,000-square-foot courthouse opened, attached to the old one by walkways.

Court records were long ago moved to the newer building, comprising the Marbury and Bourne wings, which sustained only minor damage yesterday, authorities said. They said neither Circuit Court nor District Court, located in the new building, would be in session today.

The blaze was reported at 8:26 a.m. At its height, towering flames shot through the roof and licked out the structure's tall, elegant windows.

"The firefighters went inside and tried to get to the roof, where the fire had spread, but determined it was too dangerous and difficult to fight it that way," said Lt. Col. Marc Bashoor of the Prince George's fire department. "They absolutely made the right decision. Instead, they approached the fire from the rear and from the sides."

Bashoor said more than 55 construction workers were interviewed about the fire. He said investigators are looking at construction activity as a possible cause.

Because of winds from the north that Bashoor said were close to 30 mph, the blaze spread quickly through the wooden interior of the building and along the roof. The brick exterior, he said, was not in danger of collapse, even though intense heat can weaken a brick structure. "I walked inside the front of the building, and it was just pure devastation and catastrophic in terms of the damages," Bashoor said.

Acting Fire Chief Lawrence Sedgwick said it could be a few days before an official damage estimate is made, although County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) said the figure could be close to $40 million.

Sedgwick said the fire quickly escalated to a four-alarm blaze that required about 165 firefighters to extinguish. He said three firefighters suffered minor injuries. One was taken to a hospital with a hamstring injury, and two were treated on the scene for heat exhaustion.

Calling it the "biggest fire in Prince George's history," Johnson said the old portion of the court complex "pretty much burned down." But he vowed to begin rebuilding as soon as possible. He said the county had a $100 million insurance policy on the building. "We lost our most historic building in Prince George's," he said.

Onlookers thronged the usually quiet streets of Upper Marlboro as the firefighters battled the blaze.

Tanya Oswald, 41, had a clear view from behind the register of the 7-Eleven store on nearby Water Street. "It started out with just the smoke, and then flames coming out, and then more black smoke," Oswald said.

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