3-Alarm Fire Damages Indiana Courthouse

On Wednesday, May 20, 2009, a three-alarm fire heavily damaged the historic Jefferson County Courthouse in downtown Madison, IN. The building was originally constructed between 1854 and 1855 and was undergoing renovations at the time of the fire. The three-story building was constructed of multi-layer masonry-brick with exposed stone masonry blocks on the first floor. The basement was constructed with masonry stone and brick. Interior construction consisted of a mixture of painted masonry concrete block walls and wood-frame walls. The ceilings were suspended acoustical tiles below the original wood lath and plaster ceilings. The building had two roofs. The original metal hip roof was supported by heavy-timber trussed beams that sat in beam pockets in the exterior walls below the current roof. The current roof consisted of heavy-timber bolted scissor trusses resting on top of the exterior masonry walls. Suspension truss rods joined the overlying scissor trusses to the original trussed beams providing tensional support to the beams. The current roof was covered with asphalt shingles. The Courthouse was 110 by 58 feet with a portico nine by 34 feet on the west side. A cylindrical clock tower was centrally located on the roof and rose 39 feet above the ridge line. The tower was supported by four 14-by-14-inch wood columns. The clock tower contained a 3,300-pound bell. No fire protection systems were present in the building.

This was not the first fire to strike the courthouse. One hundred fifty years earlier, a midnight fire destroyed the roof and cupola of the courthouse. This courthouse was built to replace an eight-sided courthouse that was destroyed by an arson fire in 1853.

The City of Madison Fire Department is comprised of six separate volunteer fire companies, each of which has been party to a single fire protection contract since 2004. Four stations are in the downtown area of the city. Fair Play Fire Company Number One, according to records, is the oldest operating volunteer fire company in Indiana. A single apparatus operates out of each of the stations. Two stations are on the hilltop overlooking the city. Engine 5 operates out of Station Five and Engine 6 and Quint 6 operate out of Station Six.

The Madison Fire Department was dispatched to a reported structure fire at the Jefferson County Courthouse at 300 East Main St. at 6:14 P.M. Engine 1, a 1,260-gpm pumper; Engine 2, a 1,250-gpm pumper; Engine 3, a 1,500-gpm pumper; Tower 4, a 100-foot aerial platform with a 1,500-gpm pump; and Fire Chief Steve Horton responded with 30 firefighters. Horton added Engine 6, a 1,250-gpm pumper, and Quint 6, a 100-foot aerial ladder with a 1,250-gpm pump, to the first-alarm response before leaving City Hall, where the line officers were attending a meeting. Madison Township Engine 41, a 1,260-gpm pumper, was also dispatched on the first alarm.

Upon arrival, flames and heavy, dark smoke were visible from the bell tower. The main body of the fire appeared to be in the attic. There were no civilian life-safety issues as the courthouse is closed at that time of the day. Firefighter safety became the priority. Engine 1 laid a 200-foot, five-inch supply line from in front of its station to a position in a driveway between the courthouse and the county jail. Tower 4 laid a 150-foot, five-inch supply line from a hydrant at the intersection of Main and Jefferson streets to the front of the structure, just east of the bell tower. Engines 2 and 3 hooked onto hydrants at the intersection of Main and Jefferson streets, west of the building, with soft-suction hose. This intersection has three hydrants located on a 12-inch water main coming from an elevated city water reservoir several blocks to the east. Quint 6 was positioned on Main Street, just east of the bell tower. Engine 6 was positioned on Jefferson Street on the west side of the building and was supplied by dual three-inch supply lines from an engine from Hanover. Madison Township Engine 41 was positioned at the rear of the courthouse in the southwest corner.

Firefighters stretched a 150-foot, 1¾-inch attack line from Engine 6 to the third floor in an attempt to fight the fire in the attack. An additional 150-foot, 1¾-inch attack line was placed into operation on the third floor from Madison Township Engine 41. Interior crews were evacuated from the building after about 10 minutes, when the crew from Tower 4 observed the roof starting to sag. Horton requested a second alarm at 6:21 P.M. Responding fire departments included Hanover, Kent, Canaan, Deputy, Ryker's Ridge and Milton, KY. All apparatus was staged and manpower was assigned to firefighting operations.

Horton ordered defensive operations to begin at 6:40 P.M. after a personnel accountability report (PAR) of the interior crews was conducted. Aerial master streams were placed into operation from Tower 4 and Quint 6; apparatus deck guns were placed into operation from Engines 1 and 3; Madison Township Engine 41; and the Milton, KY, engine. A portable master stream was placed into operation from Engine 2. At the height of pumping operations, apparatus operators noticed a drop in water pressure. The City of Madison Water Department had responded to the scene and activated additional pumps in the west end of town, pumping more water to the fire scene.

Horton requested a third alarm at 7 P.M. Responding fire departments included Versailles, Osgood, Jefferson-Craig, East Enterprise, New Washington, North Vernon and Vernon Township. All apparatus was staged and manpower was used for relief crews and removal of records from the building. An engine from the Scottsburg Fire Department was staged at Madison Station Six along with Madison Engine 5 to cover any additional calls. Upon arrival, an aerial master stream was placed into operation from North Vernon's quint on the west side of the building. At 8:30 P.M., the Jefferson County sheriff's office and jail, just east of the courthouse, were evacuated due to heavy smoke conditions. Seventy-nine prisoners were moved to the Armory.

Horton declared the fire under control at 9:11 P.M. The fire for the most part burned the roof off of the building with the debris falling onto the third floor. At 10 P.M., the county radio dispatch center was evacuated due to smoke conditions. The county dispatchers were moved to the City of Madison Police Dispatch Center at City Hall so that communications could be maintained. Mutual aid companies were released early Thursday morning.

A combined crew of firefighters, a law enforcement officer and a court official later entered the Circuit Court area on the third floor and retrieved evidence that was needed for several scheduled trials. The evidence was not damaged and it was removed and secured. Many other records stored in various areas of the building, including the basement, were salvaged, but water damaged. These records are undergoing a lengthy restoration process. More than 8,000 cubic feet of documents were removed from the courthouse. Many of the documents, some centuries old, required freeze-drying, deodorizing and cleaning.

Approximately 200 firefighters used three aerial apparatus and five engines to battle the fire. Eleven other engines were staged. Seven hydrants on the municipal water system delivered 800,000 gallons of water that was used to extinguish the fire. Twelve firefighters were treated at the scene for minor injuries and one firefighter was hospitalized overnight for observation. Weather conditions at the time of the fire were 81 degrees with a slight breeze. Madison Fire Department along with mutual aid assistance from various other departments maintained a rotating fire watch through Sunday, May 24. Due to the collapsed roof, many hot spots were concealed and hard to reach by firefighters.

A two-week investigation by the Madison Fire Department, Madison Police Department, Indiana State Fire Marshal and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) determined that the fire was a result of a construction worker soldering a copper downspout on the north side of the building as part of the renovation project. Damage to the structure and contents was estimated at $6 million.

—Jay K. Bradish