Mitchell courthouse closed Wednesday after basement fire

Firefighters responding to a fire at a courthouse in downtown Baltimore.

The Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse will be closed Wednesday after a basement fire on Tuesday evening. Cases will be relocated to Courthouse East, Maryland Judiciary officials said.

Thick smoke poured from sidewalk grates on the south end of the courthouse Tuesday evening, causing firefighters to close several blocks in downtown Baltimore.

Firefighters feared the smoke was toxic from burning electrical lines leading to the courthouse. They ordered away bystanders.

The fire burned in an electrical room in the basement of the courthouse, on the side of East Fayette Street, officials said. Smoke rose through all six floors.

Firefighters were dispatched about 6 p.m., when the courthouse was empty except for some security guards. Crews entered the basement and were briefly driven out amid the popping of burning electrical lines, said Capt. Ed Hall of the Baltimore City Fire Department.

"We initially had to back our guys out. It got that bad," he said.

The fire was under control in about an hour. Crews worked the fire from ground-floor windows. It appeared confined to the basement, said Terri Charles, a court spokeswoman.

Crews from Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. arrived to investigate and they shut off power to the courthouse. The utility company dispatched crews by 6:45 p.m. and assessed the underground electrical lines, said Aaron Koos, a BGE spokesman.

A broken water pipe over the courthouse's electrical switchgear caused a short and fire that burned the cable connected to BGE's underground vault, Koos said.

On the street nearby, firefighters warned people away from manhole covers for concern some could blow. There were no injuries.

Across Calvert Street, Courthouse East was evacuated. A complaint from the campaign of Rep. Donna Edwards to keep open Baltimore polling sites past 8 p.m. was heard in the courthouse then moved to the garage out back.

Later, firefighters said they tested the air and it was safe.

On Wednesday cases and court services will be moved to the Courthouse East. To check whether a proceeding/hearing has been moved to Courthouse East, call 410-396-4916.

tprudente@baltsun.com

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