Crews remain on the scene looking for hot spots to a fire that engulfed Loudon County Courthouse.
The Tuesday fire, which was called in at about 6:30 p.m., raged for several hours as crews from all fire departments in the county worked to extinguish the flames.
Loudon Fire Chief Mike Brubaker estimated about 55 firefighters were on scene and a combined 70-75 first responders, including police officers and emergency medical technicians, helped.
“Early on the flames weren’t too bad but there were some hidden fires burning,” Brubaker said. “About an hour later — our big flames were probably about 7:30 (p.m.) and about 2:30 a.m. we ended main fire operations and went into kind of a mode like we’re doing now as far as going in and looking for hot spots and any fire we couldn’t find.”
The cause is still uncertain. Officials planned to meet with the state fire marshal Wednesday to discuss the incident.
Brubaker speculated the fire could have started an hour before the fire was reported. When firefighters arrived, visible flames were coming from the bell tower.
“We have some early pictures from the fire scene that indicate the fire was probably started in the attic bell tower area,” Brubaker said. “That’s our early indications, but that’s nothing been confirmed yet.”
Most of the damage occurred on the second floor where the courtroom is located. The first floor largely consisted of smoke and water damage, with the basement potentially having water up to the waist, Brubaker said.
The “courtroom took the brunt of the damage,” he said. “It’s definitely the most damage in the whole structure.”
The design of the building created obstacles for firefighters battling the blaze, Brubaker said.
Travis Estes, Priority Emergency Medical Services director, made a similar observation Tuesday night.
“It appears that it started in the ceiling or the roof area and has extended up through the bell tower, which at the moment is acting kind of like a chimney and pulling everything and with all the years of construction, reconstruction and all that and there’s so many different layers and stuff, that fire’s extended into all those dead spaces that the water can’t even penetrate,” Estes said. “So we’re not able to reach it until it actually burns through some of that and then they will get the water on top of it.”
Brubaker emphasized access also posed a problem.
“I mean all of our fire trucks are going to be at least 50 feet away because of the access here,” he said. “Reaching the building was a problem with our ladder trucks.”
There were no major injuries.
"The only injuries that we have had have been some minor smoke and some minor burns, some of the firemen that have made interior attacks initially," Estes said. "Nothing serious, they were all treated on the scene and they were released back into the work and they’ve continued to work. ... We’ve had several businesses donate water, snack foods for the firemen. This is going to be probably an all night operation to say the least.”
Brubaker considered putting out the fire a team effort.
Agencies on the scene included Loudon, Lenoir City, Greenback Volunteer, Tellico Village Volunteer and Philadelphia Volunteer fire departments, Loudon County Fire and Rescue, Priority, Loudon County Sheriff’s Office and Tennessee Highway Patrol. Representatives from the city, county and 9th Judicial District Attorney General’s Office were also present.
“The outpouring from the community has been amazing,” Brubaker said. “We’ve got water, Gatorades, drinks, snack, food, pizzas, more stuff than we could imagine. The outpouring of support — I can’t express my appreciation and gratitude toward them enough.”
While the fire was unfortunate, Jeff Harris, Loudon mayor, said the plan should be to move forward.
“We got to put a thing in place and try to accommodate everything and keep things moving forward,” he said. “We’ve got cases coming up, trials coming up and office space, people’s out of office space. We’ve got to recover records, restore records and files. So we’re in kind of I guess a triage mode now where we’re trying to recover everything.
“… The city’s going to do whatever we can to accommodate the county’s needs,” he added.
Ty Ross, Loudon city manager, agreed.
"While this is truly a loss, especially to those with fond memories and experiences in and around this our truest civic landmark, moments like this bring people together and we certainly can build it back better than before," Ross said.
Updates will be provided at www.news-herald.net as information becomes available.