UPPER MARLBORO, Md. -- A wind-blown fire gutted the nearly 300-year-old Prince George's County courthouse yesterday, but was beaten back before reaching a modern wing where records are kept and trials are held.
"Firefighting crews took a defensive posture from the beginning to protect the new courthouse," built in 1991, said Marc Bashoor, a county fire commander.
More than 100 firefighters battled the blaze for more than 90 minutes, stopping the flames from moving beyond a series of connecting corridors that joined the unoccupied 19th-century red-brick courthouse and the modern wing, which houses the county's court system, criminal and land records, and other documents.
Because the old courthouse had been undergoing a $27 million renovation, workers had disconnected hose taps and sprinklers. The fire, which erupted on the roof, was whipped by wind gusts of more than 20 miles per hour and fueled by construction materials. There were no injuries. Court was canceled for the day, and employees were sent home.
Employees had anticipated moving back into the renovated section of the courthouse in mid-January; all the old files and historical paintings had been removed, county officials said.
"We will rebuild this building," said County Executive Jack Johnson, adding that he planned to meet with Governor Robert Erhlich.
There has been a courthouse on the grounds since 1720, and the building was altered and expanded at least four times in the past 284 years, officials said. The dome-shaped cupola that had adorned the building since its completion in 1881 was badly charred. A bell that signaled the daily opening of court fell from its heavily damaged tower.
"I've spent my entire adult life working in this building," said Circuit Court Judge C. Philip Nichols Jr., who began his career as a lawyer at the courthouse in 1972.
If court operations can't be resumed in the undamaged wing within 24 hours, temporary space will have to be located.