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Courthouse burns

Fire destroys the historic Morgan County structure

Fire destroys the historic Morgan County structure

August 09, 2006|by TRISH RUDDER

BERKELEY SPRINGS, W.VA. - The Morgan County Courthouse was destroyed by fire early Tuesday, displacing a number of county offices and dozens of employees.

The fire began about 4 a.m. in the main building at the corner of Fairfax and Washington streets and was put out by 8 a.m., officials said. The cause of the fire has not been determined.

"The roof is completely collapsed and the main building is destroyed," Morgan County Circuit Clerk Kim Jackson said.

Gov. Joe Manchin flew in from Charleston, W.Va., Tuesday afternoon to assess the damage.

Morgan County Commission President Glen Stotler said Manchin and Jimmy Gianato, a director with the governor's office, stayed about an hour and told the commissioners to contact him or Gianato "for help with financial assistance."

"The governor said, 'We are here to help you,'" Stotler said.

The cost of damages is "in the millions," Morgan County Commissioner Bob Ford said. Ford said the commissioners met with insurance officials Tuesday afternoon.

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The courthouse roof collapsed into the courtroom on the upper floor and most of the county clerk offices below, including Morgan County Clerk Debra Kesecker's office, were badly damaged.

Kesecker said her office received the worst damage.

"Part of it collapsed," she said.

Kesecker said there was some water damage to county clerk office records.

"They are wiping them down and drying them," Kesecker said.

The records had some smoke damage but "were secured in the vault and will be moved to a safe place," Jackson said.

The records were being taken to the Morgan County Rescue Squad on U.S 522.

Kesecker said she did not know if the electronic voting machines were damaged, but W.Va. Secretary of State Betty Ireland told Stotler that the company that supplied the electronic voting equipment is "on standby in case the machines are damaged."

Ireland's office issued a statement Tuesday offering assistance "to ensure that Morgan County is able to conduct a successful General Election in November." Her office will assist in "recreating voter registration lists, or any other documents the county has forwarded to the Secretary of State's office, if those documents were damaged or destroyed," the release said.

Morgan County Commissioner Tommy Swaim said the county records are the main concern.

"We're the keeper of the public records," he said.

Stotler said about 40 people worked in the main building, but all of the offices in the complex were affected and cannot be used. Stotler said three portable temporary housing units will be placed in a parking area behind the courthouse complex.

"We are very fortunate that the records were not destroyed," Stotler said.

Nine fire departments from West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania arrived to put out the fire, said Captain John Clingerman, of the Orleans, Md., Fire Department.

"No firefighters were hurt," he said.

The badly damaged clock tower bell and cupola were removed by crane for safety reasons Tuesday afternoon. The clock tower will be reinforced to keep it from falling and will be taken down, Stotler said.

In addition to the main building, other buildings in the courthouse complex were damaged by water and smoke. The sheriff's department, which is attached to the main building, had water damage. John Swaim, the county assessor, said part of the ceiling fell in.

Deputy Scott Lemon of the Morgan County Sheriff's Department discovered the fire. Lemon, who was working in the sheriff's office at 4 a.m., said his door "flew open" and he saw flashes of fire and saw and smelled smoke.

He called Morgan County 911 and the dispatcher alerted the fire department. The fire alarm at the courthouse then went off, he said.

Traffic on U.S. 522 through Berkeley Springs is expected to be detoured until tonight, officials said.

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