On The Job: North Carolina


On March 25, 2010, a three-alarm fire destroyed the historic Chatham County Courthouse in Pittsboro, NC. At one point, the building's 90-foot-high clock tower collapsed into the courthouse, causing a partial collapse of the three floors of the building. Part of the construction scaffolding surrounding the tower also collapsed into the building. Due to low water pressure, more than a dozen tankers had to be requested from area departments.

The Pittsboro Fire Department is a two-station combination department with 15 career members and 22 volunteers. In 2009, the department responded to 386 fire calls and 781 EMS calls.

The 129-year-old, three-story courthouse was constructed of masonry with a heavy timber and copper roof. The building measured 60 by 90 feet with the clock tower on the north side. Built in 1881, the courthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. The late-Victorian-style building was undergoing a $400,000 renovation at the time of the fire that included new windows and repairs to the brick structure. The building was equipped with pull stations and smoke and heat detectors wired to a fire alarm panel. The building was not sprinklered. Located on the first floor were the probation office, district attorney's office, Chatham Historical Society Museum and general storage. The second floor contained the courtroom, jury room, holding cell and bathrooms. Judges' chambers, a library and restrooms were on the third floor.

Conditions On Arrival

The Pittsboro Fire Department was dispatched to a reported structure fire at the courthouse at 12 East St. at 4:43 P.M. Pittsboro Engines 1212, 1214 and 1216, all 1,250-gpm pumpers, responded with 12 personnel under the command of Chief Daryl Griffin. Also responding on the first alarm were North Chatham Fire Department Engine 112, a 1,250-gpm pumper, and Tower 2, a 95-foot aerial platform with a 1,500-gpm pump; Moncure Fire Department Engine 1412, a 1,250-gpm pumper, and Tanker 813, a 1,500-gallon tanker; and Siler City Fire Department Ladder 9, a 75-foot aerial ladder with a 1,500-gpm pump.

First-arriving Engine 1214 reported heavy smoke and fire from the soffit on the south side of the courthouse. The building was completely encapsulated by aluminum scaffolding, with parts connected to the structure for stability. The scaffolding prevented aerial apparatus from reaching the eaves for roof operations and firefighters were not permitted to climb the scaffolding due to the possibility of structural collapse. Pittsboro Engine 1214 was positioned on the south side of the building and hooked onto a hydrant with a 25-foot, five-inch line. Engine 1212 was positioned on the north side of the building and supplied with a 200-foot, five-inch line.

Upon arrival of the fire department, it was reported that occupants might still be inside the building. A search crew of five firefighters initiated a primary search, protected by a 200-foot, 2½-inch attack line with a gated wye and a 200-foot, 1¾-inch attack line stretched from Engine 1212. While the search crew conducted the primary search, other firefighters setup for defensive operations. No occupants were found and no interior firefighting operations were initiated.

Defensive Operations

North Chatham Tower 2 was positioned on the southeast corner of the building and supplied with a 300-foot, five-inch line from Pittsboro Engine 1216. Siler City Ladder 9 set up at the northwest corner of the building and was supplied by Pittsboro Tanker 1213 with a 400-foot, five-inch line. Pittsboro Engine 1214 placed its deck gun into operation and firefighters placed into operation a 200-foot, three-inch attack line on the southwest side and a 300-foot, three-inch attack line on the south side. Both handlines were equipped with straight-bore nozzles. These two handlines were later replaced with ground monitors.

Due to the heavy smoke from the fire, county officials opened a shelter at the Chatham County Social Services building at 102 Camp Drive at 5 P.M. It was staffed by members of the American Red Cross. The shelter was closed at 8 P.M. as no residents chose to go to it.

Low water pressure on the hydrants and residual volume concerns caused command to initiate a tanker-shuttle operation. Fourteen tankers from nine departments were requested at 5:51 P.M. Responding units included two 3,000-gallon tankers from the Parkwood, a 2,000-gallon tanker from Apex, a 3,000-gallon tanker from Goldston, a 1,250 gallon and a 1,500-gallon tanker from North Chatham, one 1,500-gallon tanker and one 3,000-gallon tanker from Bonlee, a 1,000-gallon tanker from White Cross, two 2,000-gallon tankers from Silk Hope, one 1,500-gallon tanker and one 1,800-gallon tanker from Pittsboro and a 1,500-gallon tanker from Moncure. A water supply was established at a pond one mile from the fire scene. North Chatham Engine 112, a 1,250-gpm pumper, was used as the supply engine, drafting with six-inch hard suction. Two three-inch supply lines were used to fill tankers. Three 2,100-gallon dump tanks were set up on the east side of the courthouse. Pittsboro Engine 1216 established draft and supplied North Chatham Tower 2.

Collapse Zone Established

Aerial apparatus were positioned on the corners of the courthouse outside of the collapse zone. All firefighters and other apparatus were moved out of the collapse zone at approximately 6:30 P.M., when the roof of the building became fully involved and building collapse was possible.

With the continued use of master streams, command declared the fire under control at 8:46 P.M. and began releasing mutual aid units. The tanker shuttle was shut down at midnight. North Chatham Tower 2 was the last automatic aid unit to be released at 5:20 P.M. on Friday, March 26. The last Pittsboro units left the scene at 12:59 P.M. on Saturday, March 27.

At 1:37 A.M., the 90-foot clock tower collapsed into the Courthouse causing a partial collapse of the three floors of the building. Part of the construction scaffolding surrounding the clock tower also collapsed into the building.

One hundred forty-four firefighters responded to the incident with six engines, two aerials, 14 tankers, three quick response vehicles and two service trucks. Approximately 1.5 million gallons of water was used to extinguish the fire. No injuries were reported by firefighters or civilians. The temperature at the time of the fire was 71 degrees with winds gusting from 15 to 20 mph. The West Sanford and Moncure fire departments responded to three EMS calls while covering for Pittsboro. The contents of the first-floor offices and the museum were salvaged.

A two-week investigation was conducted by Pittsboro Fire Department, Chatham County Fire Marshal's Office, North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). Investigators determined that a worker soldering a downspout in a gutter started the fire on the southeast corner of the building. Damage was estimated at $10 million to the structure and $1 million to its contents.

JAY K. BRADISH/IFPA, Firehouse® news editor, is a former captain in the Bradford Township, PA, Fire Department. He has been a volunteer firefighter and fire photographer for more than 25 years.



Chief: Daryl Griffin

Personnel: 15 career firefighters, 22 volunteer firefighters

Apparatus: Three pumpers, three tankers, one service/rescue truck, two quick-response vehicles (QRVs)

Number of stations: Two Population: 10,186

Area: 103 square miles