It was a cruel irony that this South Carolina town of about 10,000 should become nationally known for one of its bleakest moments -- a smoldering fire in an antibellum jail that claimed 10 lives two days after Christmas.

Lancaster, halfway between Charlotte and Columbia, has a new junior college, a new hospital and new industries which have changed it from a rank-and-file Southern mill town to something of a hub for the surrounding rural counties.

The courthouse and the jail were two of the last public structures in town that were not new or renovated. Both were designed by Robert Mills, the architect who designed the Washington Monument.

But Lancaster is best known now for a horrible fire in a tiny shoebox of a jail that killed 10 men.

County officials and the sheriff knew it was obsolete. It had failed inspections before and had even suffered another fire three months earlier. But they said they felt they had no choice but to use it until the new facility opened.

No one here will soon forget the spectacle of men, imprisoned for offenses ranging from drunken driving to larceny, choking and burning to death helplessly.

Black leaders in the town quickly recognized that the fire could be divisive, even though Lancaster has had generally good race relations. Half of the dead inmates were black, but inadequate prisons are a rallying point for civil rights activists in a state with a predominantly black prison population.

Isaac Williams, South Carolina director of the NAACP, came to Lancaster Friday at the request of a local black group. After meeting with town and county officials, he told reporters he felt the jail disaster had "no racial overtones."

"The authorities appear to have done everything in their power to save the men," he said.

In Chester, 29 miles away, rumors of racial intent in the hit-and-run death of a young black man who dates white women threatened the peace of the town last May. Lancaster residents have said they hope their town can avoid the same ill-feelings.

Sheriff Nae Parks, a tall, soft-spoken man who came into office in 1976 with 85 percent of the vote, has been a portrait of despair since the Christmas week fire. He had few comments for the reporters who clamored for more information, but said, "It's the worst thing that has ever happened to me."

Parks faces anger and many hard questions because of the fire.

Roger Robinson, a black, middle-bystander at the fire, was fuming mad. He said he'd heard plenty of angry talk from black youths on the town's street corners and that he felt the county government had been negligent in leaving people in the jail after the September fire there that injured two inmates.

But a sister of deceased inmate Sammy Stinson didn't blame anyone for her anguish.

"I think the Lord meant for it to happen," she said.