The Webster Progress-Times
WALTHALL — An early-morning fire Thursday gutted and destroyed most of the historic Webster County Courthouse.
Around 2:30 a.m. the Walthall Volunteer Fire Department, with the Eupora Volunteer Fire Department backing up, responded to an alert 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 100-year-old structure, which is located at 515 Carroll St. in the county seat of Walthall. 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.
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.
All Webster County fire departments as well as some of the surrounding county departments 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.
The courthouse was erected in 1913, and is one of the most notable courthouses in the state. Jackson architect N.W. Overstreet used a brick and terracotta late empire masterpiece design for the building, which is rare in Mississippi.
Local architect and Walthall Mayor Belinda Stewart said if the brick and walls remain structurally sound, a restoration may be possible.
The Webster County Board of Supervisors called an emergency meeting Thursday afternoon in the boardroom of the Webster County Schools’ Central Office Building in Eupora. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss matters concerning the destruction of the courthouse and ways to begin the process of restarting county business.
Priorities of the county include preserving all salvageable court records from the vaults, which will include the process of freeze-drying documents. Another is to obtain portable offices for county officials to get back to their daily routine.
The deputy state fire marshal 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. The investigating fire marshal stated the fire was non-suspicious, according to discussion during the meeting.
Webster County has declared a local state of emergency and is seeking assistance from state Rep. Joey Hood, Mississippi Emergency Management Agency Director Robert Latham and Hancock County, which went through a similar courthouse disaster after Hurricane Katrina in 2006.
The supervisors will meet again at 1 p.m. Friday to continue discussion about the best plan of action.