Fire guts courthouse

WALTHALL — An early-morning fire Jan. 17 gutted and destroyed most of the historic Webster County Courthouse.

The Walthall Volunteer Fire Department, with the Eupora Volunteer Fire Department backing up, responded to an alert by a 911 dispatcher at 2:22 a.m. and found the courthouse in flames.

When the emergency responders first arrived at the scene, the fire was confined to the southwest corner of the building.

Firefighters immediately attempted to tame the flames from both outside and inside of the nearly 100-year-old structure, which is located at 515 Carroll St. in the county seat of Walthall. According to Eupora Fire Chief Richard Love, heat transferred to the attic on the second floor of the courthouse, breaching the roof of the building. As a result, the roof of the structure began to cave in, forcing all firefighters inside to evacuate. No injuries were reported; however, the building became engulfed in the blaze.

Wind Fed Flames With Webster County under a winter storm warning, strong gusts of wind fed the flames, causing hazardous conditions for emergency responders with burning timbers flying through the air.

Because of safety concerns, efforts to cease the fire were halted until Starkville’s Station 1 ladder truck arrived at the scene.

All Webster County fire departments as well as multiple crews from some of the surrounding counties assisted with putting out the flames and providing tanker trucks. They had the fire out by 7 a.m.

After containing the fire to a manageable state, the main concern was to preserve the vaults inside of the courthouse. According to courthouse clerks, most documents removed from the vaults were in salvageable condition. Most of the damage that occurred was from water.

Local architect and Walthall Mayor Belinda Stewart stated that the courthouse blueprints are dated back to 1913, while a courthouse plaque recovered from the remains states the building was erected in 1915. Therefore, it is believed that construction for the Webster County courthouse began in 1913 with the structure completed and open to the public in 1915 (see related article).

Recovery Process The Webster County Board of Supervisors called an emergency meeting last Thursday afternoon in the boardroom of the Webster County Schools’ Central Office Building in Eupora, which has now been designated as the site for supervisors’ meeting. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss matters concerning the destruction of the courthouse and ways to begin the recovery process.

Deputy State Fire Marshal Albert Carver of Carroll County was on scene to evaluate the cause of the blaze. After a thorough investigation, Webster County Sheriff Tim Mitchell released the results during the board meeting, stating that the fire started when a power strip in a first-floor office on the southwest corner shorted out. Carver stated the fire was non-suspicious, according to discussion during the meeting.

The Board of Supervisors approved a motion that day to declare Webster County in a local state of emergency as well to pronounce the courthouse a hazardous zone that is not open to the public. All first- floor windows and doors are concealed with boards.

Subsequent meetings have followed every business day since the fire to take steps toward the recovery process. Priorities of the county discussed during the series of board meetings included preserving all salvageable records from the chancery and circuit clerks’ vaults, which will include the process of freeze-drying documents.

Documents are being stored in two 53-foot trailers at the city-owned Garan parking lot, one of which is refrigerated. On Monday, the board voted to hire a document scanning service on a temporary basis to scan county records.

Another priority is to obtain office space for county officials to get back to their daily routine (see related article).

Seeking Aid Webster County supervisors are seeking assistance in part from area legislators, Mississippi Emergency Management Agency Director Robert Latham and Tim Kellar, chancery clerk of Hancock County, which went through a similar courthouse disaster after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“I, along with Rep. Jim Beckett, Rep. Bobby Howell and Sen. Gary Jackson, have been in constant contact with Webster County elected officials and the governor’s office in order to streamline any assistance for the county,” state Rep. Joey Hood (District 35) wrote in a legislative update.

Tom Chain with the Technical Assistance Division of the state auditor’s office was at Tuesday’s board meeting to answer any questions from supervisors and other county officials, particularly about emergency purchases stemming from the fire.

Chancery Clerk Russ Turner said the county has established a “Courthouse Fire Recovery Fund,” with the intentions of putting any monetary donations and insurance money into it.

After recessing Tuesday, supervisors were to meet at the Courthouse with civil engineer Larry Wedderstrand, district manager of Rimkus Consulting Group in Ridgeland. He was to conduct a structural analysis of the building for OneBeacon Insurance Group, which is the insurer for all county property. Webster County elected officials will continue to meet in order to advance the recovery process.

News Editor Russell Hood contributed to this report.