As thick, white, pungent smoke spread like fog through the third floor of the courthouse, it prompted a quick evacuation of the entire building.
“I go upstairs and the hallway was starting to fill up with white smoke that smelled like burning chlorine,” said Bailiff Dick Wood.
“We had a big docket upstairs today,” said County Attorney James Stainton. “But we had a little smoke so I made sure we got all our staff together and got everybody out safely.”
As lawyers, defendants, trustees and courthouse employees spilled onto the lawns and benches surrounding the building, a team of Decatur firefighters stormed inside. A few minutes later they discovered the source of the smoke.
Apparently, someone had smoked a cigarette in the third-floor bathroom next to the courtroom and tossed the smoldering butt in the trash can. It soon ignited a plastic bag and the plastic trash receptacle, releasing an eye-burning smoke into the hallway and nearby jury room.
“It turned out somebody was smoking in the boys’ room,” Wood said.
Firefighters used fans to air out the building, but the buildup of the toxic smoke was so bad they closed the building for the rest of the day. Court resumed as normal Thursday morning.
Burning plastic releases high levels of dioxins, a highly toxic chemical that doesn’t occur naturally. It can cripple immune functioning and cause cancer. High levels of dioxins are frequently found in the air, soil and water near wherever trash is burned.