puts new perspective on
planners vow to put on a good show
(June 2009) - The shocking sight
of the Jefferson County, Ind., Courthouse on fire captured the attention
of this town of 13,000 for nearly two weeks in late May. The recently
renovated belltower and cupola, with its gold-painted roof sparkling
in the morning sun, turned to curled, charred debris as it rose feebly
toward the blue sky above Madison in the days following the fire.
Hundreds of resident watched in
horror as volunteer firefighters from six companies in Madison and 12
other nearby fire departments battled the blaze throughout the evening
of May 20. Area residents returned the next morning to gawk at the damaged
roof and blackened cupola.
Many stood in disbelief, photographing
the scene. Others cruised slowly by in their vehicles in the single
restricted lane of traffic that led from the Hwy. 421 hill, south across
Main Street, down Jefferson Street and past the west side of the Courthouse
in what seemed like a two-day funeral procession passing through town.
Workers had spent a month washing, painting and touching up the Courthouse
in a $160,000 renovation project. They were putting the finishing touches
on the roof when fire broke out around 6 p.m., well after employees
had gone home for the day.
Jefferson County Courthouse
dome is fully engulfed in flames
late Wednesday, May 20,
just three weeks before the city's
sprayed thousands of gallons of water on the roof that night, sending
billowing smoke rising above the city and at times engulfing the Courthouse
entirely and blocking it from view.
The cause of the fire had not been announced at press time on June 1,
but suspicions pointed to the work being done to the roof. Jefferson
County Commissioners met a half dozen times in emergency session that
week to hire companies to salvage and recover thousands of documents,
dry out the building and take down the crippled belltower, which a week
after the fire teetered on collapse.
Meantime, the community showed an outpouring of generosity, offering
food, water, office supplies and volunteer work in helping to relocate
the Circuit and Superior Courts, and the offices of County Clerk, Auditor,
Recorder, Assessor, Board of Commissioners, Voter Registration, Surveyor
and Treasurer. MainSource Bank provided two years rent free for many
offices on the second floor of its downtown branch. Superior Court moved
to Judge Alison Fraziers office building on Second Street. Circuit
Court moved to the chamber-owned Venture Out Business Center on the
Madison hilltop. The Commissioners later announced plans to eventually
move the courts and clerk into the former Eagles Club building they
already owned on Jefferson Street. It first has to be renovated, which
they estimated could take two months.
by Don Ward
rises from the Jefferson County Courthouse on May 20
in this panoramic view from the top of the Milton, Ky., hill.
The other county offices expect
to remain at MainSource Bank for at least two years while the repairs
are made to the Courthouse, said County Assessor Margaret Hoffman. Its
a great space for us; Ive never had my own office before,
she said while still moving in a week after the fire. Everyone
has been great, and we are adjusting.
Circuit Court Judge Ted Todd said he has been truly amazed
at the professionalism and expertise of the Michigan-based document
recovery company, Electronic RestorationServices
Inc., or ERS, hired to organize, remove, freeze and restore computer
and paper documents gathered from inside the Courthouse (See related
story, Page 10). Three semi-truck loads of computer and paper documents
were hauled to Livonia, Mich., to be fully restored in ERS labs.
by Don Ward
office and court room were on the third floor the only floor
inaccessible throughout much of the week after the fire because of the
unstable belltower and 3,100-pound bell that still clung to the roof
of the building. Todd said the contents of the third floor were not
burned, only damaged by water, soot and of course, covered by fallen
debris that was once the roof.
Its hard to believe there are companies out there that do
this type of thing for a living, but now I see how important their work
is when something like this happens, Todd said.
On Wednesday, May 27, exactly a week after the fire, cranes began lifting
workers into the air to inspect the dome and devise a plan to remove
it and lower it safely onto the ground. The job drew yet another crowd
of spectators with cameras. TV news crews from Louisville spent much
of the week filming the ordeal, interviewing local residents and hovering
above the town in helicopters.
by Don Ward
timing of the fire couldnt have been worse by occurring only a
few weeks before the citys Bicentennial Celebration, set for June
6-14. The 155-year-old Courthouse was scheduled to be the centerpiece
of the towns history, although no events had been scheduled in
or near the building.
But Bicentennial planners and county commissioners are not letting this
devastating blow to one of Madisons most visible historical landmarks
put a damper on the upcoming celebration. Rather, they are pointing
to this event as a rallying point to bring the community together. They
anticipate the Courthouse fire to inspire even more people to take part
in the citys upcoming celebration.
This event has certainly galvanized the community to recognize
how significant and precious our history is, said Jan Vetrhus,
committee chairwoman of the Madison Bicentennial. Its not
just a building it contains the records of our lives
births, deaths, marriages, deeds, property taxes and court proceedings.
Vetrhus recited the words of Jefferson County Commission President Julie
Berry, who said earlier in the week, We are a resilient community,
and we will get through this.
County Commissioner Tom Pietrykowski echoed those sentiments, saying,
We will be back better and stronger than ever, as he watched
the cranes hover around the charred belltower on May 27.
by Don Ward
a press conference, held the morning after Memorial Day at City Hall,
Berry and the commissions attorney, Wil Goering, described for
a room full of government employees, spectators and TV news cameras
the events of the weekend, including the many hours of work by volunteers
and show of support by the towns citizens. Berry said the commission
wanted to salvage and restore the bell, forged in 1864 in Cincinnati.
She said the commission plans to form an advisory board to direct restoration
efforts. Were working on the best solutions for the rebuild.
Workers spent most of Thursday, May 28, cutting the belltower horizontally
in half with chainsaws. They then lifted off the 14,000-pound top half
of the belltower and sat it on the ground around 6 p.m. in the midst
of a thunderstorm. A crowd of more than 100 people braved the downpouring
rain to photograph the event and cheer wildly for the workers after
the structure touched the ground.
by Don Ward
remove documents from the
damaged Courthouse in the days
following the fire.
next day, Friday, May 29, workers lifted the bell out of the remaining
portion of the belltower and placed it safely onto Main Street, where
onlookers photographed it for several hours. Later that day, the workers
removed the rest of the belltower, weighing in at 10,000 pounds, and
rendering the third floor of the building safe for cleanup.
Federal and state investigators and insurance agents spent Friday examining
the structures to determine the cause and complete their reports. Meantime,
plans continued in earnest for the Madison Bicentennial, for which a
committee of volunteers has been planning for nearly two years. The
Courthouse fire only fueled their determination to pull off the
biggest party the city has ever seen, said committee chairwoman
by Don Ward
pride and a true spirit of volunteerism already has emerged in this
moment of devastating loss, but soon Madisons citizens will be
able to celebrate their heritage and come together to turn tragedy to
Vetrhus believes the fire will inspire people to realize just
how significant and precious our history is, and how important it is
that we come together now to celebrate it together as a community.
Ever the optimist, she said: Its important that we focus
not on what weve lost but on what we have. So we need to keep
our spirits high.
She concluded: Were still going to have a good party.
Don Ward is the editor, publisher and owner
of RoundAbout Madison. Call him at (812) 273-2259 or email him at: Don@RoundAboutMadison.com.
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