Morris County officials hope to re-open smoke-damaged courthouse on Thursday

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Talk about being on the judicial hot seat.

An electrical fire that shut down the Morris County Courthouse on Wednesday, July 20, was centered beneath the bench in courtroom 12, said Chris Walker, the county supervisor of buildings and grounds.

Chris Walker, supervisor of buildings and grounds for Morris County, is hopeful that the county courthouse can reopen Thursday. A smoky electrical fire closed the building on Wednesday. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Chris Walker, supervisor of buildings and grounds for Morris County, is hopeful that the county courthouse can reopen Thursday. A smoky electrical fire closed the building on Wednesday. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Fortunately, no hearings were scheduled for this morning in that room, which is used by the appellate division.

That third-floor courtroom may be out of commission for awhile, but Chris said he hopes to re-open the rest of the courthouse on Thursday, July 21.

“There are still some smoke issues,” he said, chalking up the fire to a “perfect storm” of events that began around 6:30 a.m. with a power brownout.

Chris said his people shut down elevators, air conditioner motors and pumps to conserve electricity.  He speculated that uneven voltage caused a piece of electrical equipment to catch fire a couple of hours later.

“I poked my head into the room, and there was smoke down to the floor,” said Morristown Acting Fire Chief Jon Prachthauser. He said there was heavy smoke throughout the third floor.

Jon said the culprit was a battery backup device for a computer that was under the judges’ bench.

Acting Fire Chief Jon Prachthauser said firefighters wrapped up at the courthouse just before 2 pm--about five hours after responding to reports of a smoky odor. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Acting Fire Chief Jon Prachthauser said firefighters wrapped up at the courthouse just before 2 pm--about five hours after responding to reports of a smoky odor. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Firefighters responded to a report of a smoky odor at 8:58 a.m.  Ann and Court streets soon were closed. Courthouse workers and visitors waited outside the building for much of the morning until finally being sent home.

Only a few employees from Chris Walker’s department and the county sheriff’s department were inside during the brownout; everyone was evacuated safely, Chris said.

Parts of the Federal-style courthouse date to 1826, according to the Morris County Tourism Bureau. The affected area was renovated in 1969-70, Chris said.

Morristown firefighters were assisted by the Morristown police and EMS squad, with backup from the Morris Township, Cedar Knolls, Whippany, Morris Plains, Brookside (Mendham) and Parsippany (Districts 1 and 2) fire departments.

Although the courthouse was without air conditioning throughout the emergency, the acting fire chief said the building remained a lot cooler than the streets outside, where temperatures once more topped 90 degrees.

Firemen leave the Morris County Courthouse, which was shut down by an electrical fire. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Firemen leave the Morris County Courthouse, which was shut down by an electrical fire. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Fire truck outside the Morris County Courthouse. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Fire truck outside the Morris County Courthouse. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

The Morristown EMS squad makes sure there is plenty of water for firefighters responding to Morris Courthouse blaze. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

The Morristown EMS squad makes sure there is plenty of water for firefighters responding to Morris Courthouse blaze. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Morristown Firefighters Fred Richards, Joe San Felice and Tom Gaylord catch their breath in the Morris County Courthouse, scene of a smoky electrical fire. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Morristown Firefighters Fred Richards, Joe San Felice and Tom Gaylord catch their breath in the Morris County Courthouse, scene of a smoky electrical fire. Behind them, not pictured, is Firefighter Tom Spautz. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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