Records restoration continues after Courthouse fire

By Beverly Pettigrew Kraft

An inferno engulfed the 98-year-old Webster County Courthouse in
Walthall during the wee hours of Jan. 17. Firefighters battled the
blaze in the midst of a winter storm.

By the time the fire was extinguished, the roof had collapsed and the
second floor courtroom lay in rubble. Although most first floor
offices were intact, they suffered heavy smoke and water damage. The
first-floor Tax Assessor/Collector’s office, where the fire is
believed to have started, was charred.

All offices have moved temporarily to Eupora.

The fire was reported about 2:20 a.m. by someone going to the
Walthall Post Office across the street. Nine Webster County volunteer
fire departments, the Starkville Fire Department and firefighters
from seven surrounding counties helped fight the blaze. Firefighters
working inside the burning structure were able to beat back the
flames for a time, but when the fire spread into the attic, the scene
was deemed too dangerous and the order was given to leave the building.

Chancery Clerk Russell Turner hauled computers out of his office when
it looked like the fire was going to be contained. “When we saw it
was going, we asked the firefighters to keep the vaults as cool as
possible,” Turner said. “They didn’t burn. They flooded. When I
opened the (vault) door, water came over my boots. The shredder and
garbage can floated by.”

Records were placed in freezer storage the afternoon after the fire.
Docket and minute books were freeze dried and digitally scanned. Some
files were air dried.

Chancery Court records from the mid-1990s forward were saved. “They
are smutty and smoky but they are here,” Turner said. Every time we
open the cabinet, we get that fresh smell of smoke.”

Older files that had been stored upstairs burned. “We lost everything
from the mid-’90s back. They were in the part that burned.”

Chancery docket and minute books were damaged, but were saved. Land
records were wet and smoky, but intact. Land records are going to be
digitally imaged, although the project is not complete.

Old Circuit Court files stored in the second floor law library
burned. More recent records were water damaged, but intact.

“Our vault did a really good job. We had lot of water damage, but we
are lucky,” said Deputy Circuit Clerk Wanda Robinson.

The Mississippi Electronic Courts program, which uses e-filing
modeled on that of the federal trial courts, has accepted Webster
County as a participant. A start date has not been set for
implementing e-filing.

Turner said, “We will actually step into the current times. This is
what we should have been doing for the last eight to 10 years. We
thought we could not afford it. We were shown that we couldn’t afford
not to.”

No decision has been made as to whether the county will attempt to
restore the burned courthouse or move the offices permanently.

Most Webster County government offices temporarily relocated to
Eupora. Offices reopened to the public Jan. 28. Offices of the
Webster County Chancery Clerk, Circuit Clerk, Tax Assessor-Collector,
Forestry Commission and County Purchasing Clerk share space with the
Webster County Extension Service and the Webster County Justice Court
at 16 E. Fox Ave. in Eupora.
The Extension Service and Justice Court are permanently housed in
Eupora. County workers made emergency modifications to the Extension
Service and Justice Court facility to accommodate those offices
displaced by the fire. The Webster County Board of Supervisors meets
at the Board of Education offices.

Circuit Judge Clarence Morgan III held arraignments Jan. 22 in the
Justice Court Courtroom. Plans have not been finalized for the June
Circuit Court term. Chancery Court and Youth Court use the municipal
courtroom in Eupora.

Beverly Pettigrew Kraft is public information officer for the
Mississippi Administrative Office of Courts, which originally
published this article in the April edition of the Mississippi Courts
newsletter.