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Legal communities in Columbus and Madison deal with fires

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Major fires disrupted and displaced attorneys last year in two different cities in southern Indiana. While neither of the original structures are near completion, life is more or less back to normal in Madison and Columbus.

In May, the Jefferson County Courthouse in Madison, which had just undergone a restoration, suffered a massive fire. Earlier this year, reconstruction began and the exterior will likely be completed by spring.

However, the fire led court officials to reconsider adding a 10,000-square-foot addition to the cramped courthouse, which could extend the timeline before court staff could move back in. Similar additions to historic courthouses have taken place in Ohio, Scott, and Switzerland counties, said Wilmer E. Goering II, an attorney for the city who has been helping with various tasks since the fire.

In Columbus, the United Way offices, which housed Legal Aid - District Eleven Inc. and a program of Indiana Legal Services Inc. that is part of the Area XI Council on Aging, also had a devastating fire Dec. 24. All tenants of that space were displaced because of fire, smoke, and water damage.

Doug Otto, executive director of United Way, worked quickly to find space for the tenants, said Tammara Sparks, executive director of Legal Aid - District Eleven, which covers Bartholomew, Brown, Decatur, Jackson, and Jennings counties. The agency's temporary space right after the fire was in the Girl Scouts office across the street from the scorched United Way building.

Legal Aid - District Eleven moved into space provided by Cummins Feb. 12. The new offices included donated furniture and equipment.

While in the Girl Scouts building, Sparks and five others who work out of her office were crammed into two small storage rooms.

One storage room held four connected workspaces and a sink that served as a makeshift file cabinet. One of the workspaces was shared by those who are in the office part-time, depending on when they were physically there.

The cramped space has caused the staff members to get to know each other a little better than before, said Client Counseling Program Director Detria Tate. She added they all seemed to get along well despite their lack of personal space.

The second storage room had one desk and was primarily used for confidential meetings with clients.

Their new space has separate offices for staff members, something they were looking forward to as they anticipated the move.

In Madison, court employees remain scattered around downtown and are now all within a few blocks of each other.

Goering said the county-owned Jefferson Street Annex, which was built for storage, was remodeled after the fire. That building currently houses the Circuit Court and clerk's office. Probation is in the Wilson House, just south of the courthouse. MainSource Bank of Indiana on Main Street now houses the county treasurer, auditor, reporter, surveyor, assessor, and commissioners.

Superior Judge Alison Frazier, who started her term as judge in January 2009, moved back into the building where she had her law office. The Superior Court and a branch of the clerk's office are now there, Goering said.

Steven Bruns of Indianapolis-based American Structurepoint Inc., one of the companies working on the courthouse, said things were coming along, slowly but surely.

Because of reconstruction work following an 1869 fire at the courthouse, Goering said there were essentially two roofs and the 2009 fire was between them, which has made reconstruction a challenge.

Structurepoint recently installed a new roof, no small feat as everything at the roof line and up had been destroyed by the fire, Bruns said. When installing the roof, Bruns and others on the project needed to consider that part of the new roof will eventually be removed and replaced to hold a replica of the cupola that was destroyed in the fire.

Goering said the court issued an emergency order for cranes and equipment to remove the old cupola before the structure, weighing more than 30,000 pounds, could potentially collapse and damage the building even more.

At that time, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was still conducting an investigation, so the cupola needed to be removed carefully, Goering said.

A replica of the cupola will likely be made from of a lighter weight material, Bruns added. The bell won't be moved back to the top of the courthouse, but it will be preserved and somehow incorporated into the courthouse's interior design. An electronic version of the bell's tone will also be incorporated into the reconstruction efforts.

Other adjustments will be made as well.

"We have adequate insurance to put back what was there, but we didn't have a sprinkler system, so the county has to pay for that," Goering said. They also will have to install a better elevator because the original one was not compliant with standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

"The courtroom that was designed in 1960 is really not as technologically advanced as it should be, and there are some changes in the floor plan because the spaces were so small, and those have to be worked out with insurance as well," he added.

Aside from physical space, records needed to be restored.

District Eleven's documents have since been restored, for the most part. Sparks recalled the moldy smell and water damage to files that were returned to her office dry, clean, and with dryer sheets in a handful of large boxes.

In Jefferson County, most documents have also been returned.

"We used Electronic Restoration Services out of Michigan," Goering said. "They came within hours of the fire with refrigerated trucks and started taking documents out so they could freeze them quickly to take them back to Michigan where they processed the documents."

He added the restoration company was very thorough.

"The documents were really in surprisingly good shape," he said. "If they had documents or files that were so damaged they couldn't return the originals, they duplicated those and sent us the recreated files."

For instance, he said, if they received a yellow legal pad with handwritten notes, they sent back the duplicate on yellow paper.

While some of the artwork in the building was salvageable, one of the more interesting stories involved Circuit Judge Ted R. Todd's diplomas.

They were on sheepskin, Goering said, so they shrank a little from the process but were still in good shape.

In both cases, attorneys said having a disaster plan in place was key. Jefferson County had one, and many of their more recent documents were already being stored electronically in multiple places just in case of a fire like this one.

Sparks said she had attended a course about having an emergency plan shortly before the fire in Columbus, which helped her.

Going forward, the attorneys in Columbus and in Madison said they were very appreciative of how their respective towns helped them in times of need, and that things have gone fairly smooth, considering the devastation of their respective buildings.

"I can't wait to have four walls, a desk with drawers, and everything in its place," Sparks said.

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