Flames melted siding and gutters that had just been repaired on top of the Jefferson County Courthouse.  (Staff photos by Mark Campbell)
Flames melted siding and gutters that had just been repaired on top of the Jefferson County Courthouse. (Staff photos by Mark Campbell)
Less than three weeks before the city of Madison is scheduled to celebrate its 200th birthday, one of its most historic buildings was severely damaged by a fire that started Wednesday evening and burned into early today.

At 6:13 p.m., the Madison Fire Department responded to a report of flames and smoke coming from the dome and cupola of the 154-year-old Jefferson County Courthouse.

Madison Fire Chief Steve Horton estimated nearly 200 firefighters and support crews from Madison and surrounding communities responded to the fire.

"There was some smoke coming out of the windows and then, about 15 minutes into the smoke, flames started shooting out of the tower," said Don Richardson, executive director of River Valley Resources, who was in his office directly across Main Street from the Courthouse at the time the fire started. "And that's when the trucks started showing up."

According to authorities, no one was injured in the fire, but one firefighter was treated after experiencing difficulty breathing.

The state fire marshal will investigate the cause of the fire, which remains undetermined.

By the time the majority of the flames were extinguished, the roof of the three-story Courthouse had collapsed and a scorched dome and cupola were only supported by a skeletal frame of charred timbers that had supported one of the most recognizable features of Madison's riverfront skyline.

The building's brick walls remained intact, but fire and water damage to the building was substantial, with four to six inches of water on the first floor. Firefighters continued to spray water onto the building early today.

At the height of the fire, firefighters were using eight hydrants in the downtown area.

"We will rebuild our Courthouse," Jefferson County Commission President Julie Berry said at an emergency meeting of the county commissioners, less than three hours after the fire started and while firefighters continued their work. "Our Courthouse is the most important building in our community."

"We are a resilient community, and that Courthouse will be rebuilt and it will once again become one of the most beautiful buildings in our state and in our country," Berry said.

As word of the fire spread throughout the community, hundreds of onlookers filled downtown streets to watch the firefighting efforts. Many covered their faces to avoid breathing in the thick smoke that filled the air. Water spray from the fire hoses made it feel like a light rainfall at times.

The courthouse is insured for $25.8 million in total coverage by Madison Insurance Agency through the carrier Travelers Insurance, said Jefferson County Attorney Wil Goering.

"It is replacement coverage to put the building right back the way it was," Goering said. "As terrible as it looks tonight, it will be rebuilt... Absolutely. It will be the way it was."

"We will be working on alternative office space and have had some preliminary discussions about that already," Berry said. "It's obvious the Jefferson County Courthouse will not be available for business as usual for some time to come."

Jefferson County Prosecutor Chad Lewis said individuals with criminal court dates set for the near future should contact their attorneys to determine when and where their court dates will be rescheduled.

Possibilities for temporarily housing county for offices, proposed during Wednesday's emergency meeting included; the Venture Out Business Center, the former RKO Enterprises building, Superior Court Judge Alison Frazier's currently vacant law office, facilities at the Madison State Hospital, holding court in the conference room at the Jefferson County Jail and attempting to quickly renovate the old Eagles building across from the courthouse, a project that has been discussed in the months leading up to the fire.

The fire came on the same day renovation crews from Brian Brothers Painting and Restoration of Piqua, Ohio had completed a $160,000 restoration that had left the old building in pristine condition with a newly painted golden dome. Teton Corp. of Madison had been hired to install a new roof on the building later this summer.

Jefferson Circuit Court Judge Ted Todd watched from across Main Street as the building he had held court in for the past 21 years went up in flames. Todd came to the Courthouse as soon as he had heard of the fire.

"It was beautiful. Just today, I was thinking that was really nice and would be done for the Bicentennial. The courthouse was looking as good as it ever looked," Todd said. "It's a sad day for Jefferson County."

According to Todd, Chief Probation Officer Julie Mitchell was in the courthouse when flames became visible from the dome and cupola. She came out of the building, not knowing the fire had started, to see fire trucks arriving on scene. According to authorities, the building was empty when the fire began to spread from the dome and cupola to the rest of the structure.

Horton initially sent firefighters into the building, but ordered all personnel out of the building once the roof started to collapse.

"We are not going to risk firefighters for a structure fire," Horton said while fire spread from the center of the building. "Our concern now is not having any injuries. Property loss is going to be what it is. However, we do have a deep concern about records."

The courthouse is home to county records dating to as early as 1811. Many of them are stored on the first floor and in the basement, both of which sustained major water damage. Many county offices have their records electronically saved at an off-site location.

Berry expects more information on what records were lost in the fire, later in the week.

"It is the repository for our records in Jefferson County and it stood for a long time, and the loss is greater than maybe we can bear tonight," Berry said.

"The prosecutor's office is undamaged, so the records there are fine," Goering said about files on pending criminal court cases. "We should be able to reconstruct current files. The problem will be with reconstructing older files."

At around 7:30 p.m., while the fire raged, Jefferson County Commissioners Tom Pietrykowski, Mark Cash and Berry; Jefferson County Clerk Kim Smith; and Madison Mayor Tim Armstrong gathered at the intersection of Walnut and Main streets. After a short discussion, the commissioners immediately began contacting county office holders to organize an emergency meeting at 9 p.m. at Madison City Hall.

"Never in my wildest dreams did I figure that something like this would happen," Pietrykowski said as he watched the fire. "It couldn't be worse timing. They (Brian Brothers) were done today and ready to go home."

At the same time the commissioners were organizing the emergency meeting, the Jefferson County Jail, located adjacent to the Courthouse, was being evacuated of all inmates.

Sheriff Bill Andrews had evacuated the jail as a precaution. Later, the inmates were taken in Madison Consolidated School buses to jails in surrounding counties.

Shortly after 10 p.m., once the fire was under control, firefighters entered the first floor of the Courthouse. They removed some items from the first floor before evacuating the building once again.

During the fire, while the county 911 office, located in the Jefferson Sheriff's Office, was evacuated all 911 calls went to dispatch centers at the Madison Police Department and King's Daughters' Hospital.

The Madison Fire Department was assisted in fighting the fire by the Madison Township, Hanover, Scottsburg, Versailles, Geneva Township from Jennings County and Jefferson-Craig Township from Switzerland County fire departments, along with Milton, Ky., Fire & Rescue and Ripley County Emergency Management. The Madison Police Department assisted in crowd control and guarding jail inmates.

The Jefferson County Sheriff's Department was assisted by sheriff's deputies from Ripley, Scott and Switzerland counties, as well as the Indiana State Police.