Fire ravages Colonial Beach school building
BY ROB HEDELT
A fire that lit up the sky in Colonial Beach before daybreak Sunday destroyed the early 1900s brick building that for years was the town’s proud high school.
But while they bemoaned the loss of the building that had been condemned two years ago due to earthquake damage, Colonial Beach officials are crediting their volunteer fire department and others from neighboring communities with saving everything else on the block: homes, four different elementary school buildings and even the old high school gym known affectionately as “The Cracker Box.”
No injuries to those fighting the blaze were reported.
State police arson investigators were at the scene, but their presence was called routine for a fire in a vacant old building.
But whether it was the town’s fire chief, his deputy, the chairman of the school board, the elementary school principal or other school officials, all said the loss of the old building hurt all the more because it was the high school from which they’d graduated.
“It’s a sad day for the town,” said Tim Trivett, chairman of the town’s school board and a volunteer firefighter who helped battle the blaze. “But thank goodness the wind wasn’t blowing like it was a week ago. If it had been, we might have lost all the elementary school buildings” situated around the old school building.
Those nearby buildings were not damaged, but they are so close to the burned school building that officials say they’re within the “collapse zone” of the burned building, so classes for elementary students were cancelled for today. School officials were meeting Sunday afternoon to determine where and when to resume school for the 280 students who have classes there. (See accompanying story.)
For those students, school’s cancelled for Monday.
Dave Robey and Dana Reed, chief and deputy chief of the town’s volunteer fire department, said the call on the school building came in just before 4 a.m. Sunday, and their department was there in short order.
Said Reed, “Heavy fire was showing in the front of the building, downstairs and upstairs. We sent in two crews to fight it.”
He added that the crews thought they had the fire contained when they realized flames had gotten into an inaccessible void above a false roof.
“It traveled up the eaves and then broke out on the building’s roof,” said Reed. Firefighters were immediately pulled men out of the building and the blaze was fought mainly from hoses and trucks outside.
Robey said a lack of water made fighting the fire difficult early on until a fireboat sent from Cobb Island in Maryland began relaying water from the Potomac River to a pumper truck and and from there to to the fire.
“Once we had enough water, we were able to get it all under control within an hour or so,” said Robey, shaking his head at the sight of his charred, old high school.
Reed referred all questions about the cause of the fire to a team of arson investigators from the Virginia State Police who were on site as the building still smoldered.
A spokesman for that team, State Police Sgt. Thomas Molnar, said it was too early in that investigation for the team to release any findings.
“It typically can take several days or longer for them to reach conclusions in a situation like this,” he said.
He and fire officials at the scene yesterday said it was typical for a blaze in an unoccupied building to be investigated for arson.
Town officials said the building—which some said was built in 1907, while others said 1912—was condemned two years ago following the region’s August 2011 earthquake.
At that time, the school system moved the 6th- and 7th-graders who had classes there to modular units across town at the site of the current Colonial Beach High School.
The old school gym attached to the burned building and a cafeteria nearby sustained either water or heat damage, but came through in fair shape.
Town officials expressed gratitude to the volunteer fire units who rushed to help: all four Westmoreland county squads as well as units from King George, Caroline and Stafford counties, the Naval Surface Warfare Center and counties in Maryland.
Bobby Hooker, who lives just around the corner from the school that burned, said he was wakened around 4 a.m. by the smell of smoke in his house.
He ran out of the house—“Yes, still in my underwear,” he said—to see smoke seeping out of the old school.
By the time he dashed back inside to put on some clothes and grab his camera, the Colonial Beach resident who supplements his regular income with photography captured some stunning pictures of the blaze, showing flames from windows all over.
Reed and other officials noted that the discovery of chemicals in what had once been the high school science lab complicated fire-fighting efforts in the latter stages.
A hazardous materials team was needed to move those into the gym and town officials expect that at least some of those chemicals will have to be disposed of by a firm with special expertise in handling those materials.
Mary Fisher, the principal of Colonial Beach Elementary School, which handles students in pre-K through 5th grade, said it was sad to see the damage to the school from which she also had graduated.
But she spoke for most around her when she added, “At least it didn’t happen on a day when the students were here and could have been hurt. That it happened on a day when school wasn’t in session is truly a blessing.”
Rob Hedelt: 540/374-5415