Upper Marlboro resident Steve Hayes refused to turn away, even when nothing remained of the historic, red brick courthouse but murky clouds of smoke and soggy debris.
"I worked in that building for 18 years as a building engineer," Hayes, 45, said as he nodded toward the smoldering, gutted two-story structure a few hours after the massive blaze was extinguished. "I did everything from fix heaters to hang photographs."
Hayes was not alone. Throughout the day, as dozens of firefighters doused the flare-ups and combed through the ruins in search of a cause, many courthouse employees and prosecutors and judges stood across the street and lamented the destruction.
"We are losing history," said trial lawyer Ken Boehm, a sentiment echoed by State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey, among many others.
Much of the building was reduced to a smoking ruin Nov. 3 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 building, with its columned facade, 19th-century bell and domed cupola, was destroyed a few months before it was scheduled to reopen after a $25 million renovation. It was largely vacant because of the renovation work, and no one was seriously injured.
Fire officials said this week that temporary lighting in the attic caused the blaze. They declined to say exactly how the lighting sparked the fire, citing the ongoing investigation. But Mark Brady, a spokesman for the fire department, said investigators determined it was an accident. Brady said the fire caused an estimated $8 million in damage.
Calling it the "biggest fire in Prince George's history," County Executive Jack B. Johnson vowed at the scene to begin rebuilding as soon as possible. Johnson said the county had a $100 million insurance policy on the building. He estimated that it would cost close to $40 million to rebuild it.
The 151,000-square-foot courthouse became the Duvall Wing of the county's Criminal Court Complex in 1991 when a 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 smoke and water damage. It reopened Monday after air quality tests concluded the building was safe.
Circuit Court Judge C. Philip Nichols Jr., who has worked in the Prince George's courts all his adult life, said he was in his office in the newer building last Wednesday when he smelled smoke.
"I realized it wasn't a drill," Nichols said the morning of the fire, standing among a group of elected leaders and fire officials. "I just really don't know what to think about it. It's sad for everybody. A lot of decisions have been made in that building and it's been the focal point in the county for many, many years."
Johnson, who was elected county executive two years ago, started his political career at the county courthouse. Johnson also served as the state's attorney for eight years.
"I have a lot of memories inside there," he said moments after the blaze had consumed the building. "It's a big loss for all of us."
Officials said the fire originated on the right side of the building. It 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. More than 55 construction workers who were at the site were interviewed by investigators in the hours and days after the fire.
Because of winds of close to 30 mph from the north, the blaze spread quickly through the wooden interior and along the roof, said Lt. Col. Marc Bashoor of the Prince George's Fire Department. The brick exterior, Bashoor said, was not in danger of collapse, even though intense heat can weaken a brick structure.
The fire quickly escalated to a four-alarm blaze that required about 165 firefighters to extinguish. Three firefighters suffered minor injuries. One was taken to a hospital with a hamstring injury, and two were treated at the scene for heat exhaustion.
Onlookers thronged the usually quiet streets of Upper Marlboro as the firefighters battled the blaze and in the days afterward. Many people recalled the day they got their marriage licenses from a first-floor office in the Duvall Wing, or the less joyous times when they paid parking tickets. Several others talked about the highly publicized cases that were tried in the wing, including the 1987 case of Brian Tribble, who was accused of supplying the fatal dose of cocaine to famed University of Maryland basketball player Len Bias.
"A lot of history came through those doors," said Deputy Sheriff Keith Matthews, who has been stationed at the court complex for 19 years.
Matthews stood across from the ruins and shook his head. "It's just all very sad."