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Eagle Point school burns

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? — — — — — Just five days before classes begin, a hard-to-kill blaze wrecks nearly half of the middle school

EAGLE POINT ' In a mysterious early-morning fire, nearly half of the Eagle Point Middle School burned Thursday, leaving only twisted black beams where the gym and administration buildings once stood.

Teachers, administrators and students looked on in horror as flames leapt from the roofs, buildings collapsed and firefighters were forced to concede classroom after classroom to the troublesome blaze.

It's bad because I was looking forward to coming to school and stuff, said 13-year-old Steven King as he watched the fire, balancing on his blue Mongoose low-rider bike. I don't know where they are going to put me now.

School was scheduled to begin next Tuesday, but middle schoolers will start a few days late.

Small fires continued to pop up even late Thursday afternoon. Two firefighters were taken to the hospital for minor injuries. The fire's cause has not been determined.

We're not looking at it as a suspicious fire, but it's such a large, complex fire to deal with, we won't start digging until Tuesday, said Don Hickman, Fire District — fire marshal.

Firefighters were alerted to the blaze when a passer-by called it in on his cell phone at 4 a.m. Firefighters arrived to find flames leaping 40 and 50 feet into the air from the school's 14,600-square-foot gym. The gym soon collapsed.

It was bowstring construction, Hickman said. Each piece is integral in that construction ... when it started to go it was like a house of cards.

Firefighters tried to save the rest of the school ' originally built from the remains of Camp White's 1940s-era Quonset huts ' but the fire crept through a maze of attic spaces created by numerous remodels and capped by a metal roof.

Twice, firefighters made stands to block the fire's progress, first within the administration building, and then before it spread to the adjacent library wing. But each time the voracious inferno found hidden attic spaces, consumed them and moved on.

The biggest thing we're running into is not only the metal roof, that acts like a lid on an oven, but remodel over remodel over remodel, Hickman said as water from a high-pressure water cannon arched and fell onto the flames Thursday morning. Just when we think we've made progress on the fire, we run into another roof section and it flares up again.

As the firefighters backed up each time, frantic teachers tried to save textbooks and teaching aids they had collected over the years. Some teachers loaded up wheelbarrows, and others piled books and computers on carts.

Seventh-grade teacher Angie Simpson begged a firefighter to run into her class and save Dean and Jean, her classroom turtles.

My room hadn't burned yet, and he went in and got the turtles, she said.

She whisked them to safety in a bucket.

Finally, in a space above the library, firefighters made their last stand. Fire was creeping through the attic, but they cut a hole in the metal roof and placed huge fans at the unburned end of the building, creating positive pressure and keeping the fire at bay. Half the building was saved. The other half suffered severe smoke and water damage, although firefighters were able to protect most of the computers in the computer lab by placing a thick red tarp over the machines and materials.

They made an ass-kicking stop on this thing, Hickman said.

Two buildings ' the main gym and the administration building ' were destroyed in the blaze. The administration building included sixth-grade classrooms, the co-principals' offices, the English as a Second Language classroom and a counseling room.

The library building, which includes seventh- and eighth-grade classes and a computer lab, has extensive damage. A third classroom building, the smaller multipurpose gym, the shop and technology building, the greenhouse, and the lunchroom all were saved.

Thirteen fire departments joined in fighting the blaze.

The monetary loss had not been calculated Thursday.

The school's athletics coordinator, Stan Rossetta, watched 29 years of memories go up in smoke ' as well as almost all the school's athletic equipment. We're talking tens of thousands of dollars, he said. I lost all my pictures that date back from 1975. I lost my camera. I lost all our P.E. stuff, including bats, balls and nets.

To make sure football and other sports start as soon as possible, Rossetta will contact a local athletics store to purchase new equipment.

Sixth-grade teacher Kathy Helgeson's room was in the administration wing. She lost every teaching aid she'd collected in her 14-year teaching career: mementos from the 14 national parks she has visited (which she uses for her unit on national parks); the models of pyramids and make-a-mummy kits she created for her Egypt unit; and owl droppings she displayed in the owl and bat unit.

We're without anything. Everything is gone, Helgeson said. But we'll pull it together.

We're teachers.

Co-principal Lynn Eccleston worried that student records may have been lost in the blaze. But even late Thursday, she couldn't check.

Most of them are in fire-proof safes, she said. But they are only good to some point ' and the fire was concentrated there ' so I'd be surprised if it's still intact.

Eagle Point Schools Superintendent Bill Jones said that with recent state budget cuts, school layoffs and now a fire, he wonders how many things the plate will hold.

This is the most devastating thing to occur while I've been superintendent, he said.

Insurance adjusters were combing the school Thursday afternoon. Jones doesn't think he will have to ask voters for money to replace the school.

Many of the students and their families who rushed to the school to watch stayed for hours ' mesmerized by the spectacle.

This is like, crazy, said Cody Ruddock, an eighth-grader at the school who snapped photos with a disposable camera when he wasn't peering through binoculars. My first thought was that someone doesn't want to go to school.

This is nuts.

Eagle Point Middle School athletics coordinator Stan Rossetta inspects the rubble of the school?s gymnasium, which was destroyed in a 4 a.m. blaze Thursday that also consumed the administration building. Fire officials don?t consider the blaze suspicious. Click the photo to see a larger (32k) version. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell - Mail Tribune Bob Pennell