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
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
Firefighters 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
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
Todds 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,
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
The 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
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
At 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.
The 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
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 Jan Vetrhus.
by Don Ward
Community 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 triumph.
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
She concluded: Were still going to have a good party.
Don Ward is the editor, publisher and owner of RoundAbout.
Call him at (812) 273-2259 or email him at: Don@RoundAboutMadison.com.