UPPER MARLBORO -- Fire ravaged yesterday the majestic courthouse that has stood at the center of the Prince George's County seat since the 19th century and was the scene of several notable trials, including those of former Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace's would-be assassin and basketball star Len Bias's alleged drug dealer.
Fire officials last night were unsure of the cause of the four-alarm blaze, which was reported about 8:15 a.m. and drew 125 firefighters. They battled flames for 2 1/2 hours as a crowd looked on. Two firefighters suffered minor injuries, and damage was estimated at about $40 million.
Upper Marlboro, about 20 miles southeast of Washington, developed around the red-brick courthouse, which was famous for its dome-shaped cupola.
Yesterday, flames shot up from behind the building's four ionic columns, and billowing smoke could be seen from miles away. By the afternoon, the bell tower's fortified steel frame was still standing amid the charred remains of the roof supports.
The building, which was constructed on Main Street in 1880, was undergoing a $25 million renovation that was to be finished in January.
Mary Marsico, the administrative assistant to a Circuit Court judge, expressed sadness as she watched the near-destruction of an iconic building, decorated inside with dark wood paneling and marble staircases.
"I can't stand it," Marsico said. "This beautiful building."
Her boss agreed. "Telling people `I'll see you in court,' has meaning because of buildings like these," said Circuit Judge C. Philip Nichols Jr.
An engineer yesterday declared the walls not in danger of collapsing, and after consulting with County Council members, County Executive Jack B. Johnson said they were committed to saving the structure, known as the Duvall wing.
"We will rebuild this Prince George's County landmark," Johnson said in a statement,
According to a statement from Coakley & Williams Construction Inc., the general contractor overseeing both the renovation and an addition to the adjacent new courthouse, known as the Marbury wing, a supervisor discovered smoke coming from the roof about 8:15 a.m. Fire officials do not consider the cause to be suspicious.
People were evacuated safely from the Marbury wing, where most of the court's business is now conducted, and from the construction site at about 8:30 a.m., shortly after first responders arrived at the scene.
They quickly switched from offense to defense, first trying to put out the fire from the roof and underneath it. Soon firefighters moved equipment into the four-story Bourne addition, a 1960s-structure that connects the Duvall and Marbury wings, in order to protect the modern courthouse.
The old courthouse's wooden structure and winds of up to 30 mph complicated the mission, fire officials said.
"It started in the worst place, at the front of the building, and it carried it throughout the roof structure," said Lt. Colonel Marc Bashoor, who coordinated the operation.
The fire was brought under control about 11 a.m., said Mark Brady, spokesman for the Prince George's County Fire Department. One firefighter suffered heat exhaustion and another suffered a strained leg tendon, he said.
Historic paintings and court records had been removed from the building for the renovation.
Court proceedings were canceled yesterday as firefighters continued to tend to embers and hot spots. Court will not be in session today in Upper Marlboro.
The Duvall wing was the third courthouse constructed in Upper Marlboro, said Susan G. Pearl, the county historian. The first courthouse was built in 1721 in what was then called Upper Marlborough; the second was constructed in 1790, east of the Duvall wing's location on Main Street.
Nichols recalled important cases tried at the old courthouse, including the 1972 trial of Arthur Bremer, who was convicted of shooting Wallace as he campaigned for president.
More than a decade later, Brian Lee Tribble of Forestville was tried on charges that he supplied the cocaine that led to the overdose death of Len Bias, a promising University of Maryland basketball player. He was later cleared of those charges.
To many, however, the courthouse was much more -- the center of the community for generations.
Law librarian Pamela Gregory started in the Duvall wing in 1971, then spent her career working in or near the building.
With tears in her eyes, Gregory said: "It's a big loss and a lot of history gone."