Leader Blues

Thursday, August 10, 2006

TOP STORY >> Fire takes Cabot school

IN SHORT: Suspected electrical fire destroys one of Cabot’s junior highs as district officials plan to use portable buildings for classes.

By SARA GREENE AND JOAN MCCOY
Leader staff writer

Parents were registering their children for classes Thursday afternoon when they realized Cabot Junior High School North was on fire.

Dozens of teachers, parents and youngsters hurried out of the building as flames engulfed the structure, which was destroyed despite efforts by firefighters who worked seven hours to contain the blaze.

By 9 p.m., the inner walls had collapsed and most of the roof and Cabot firefighters knew they would have to keep a close watch over it for at least two more days to make sure it didn’t flare up again.

Smoke could be seen from as far away as Jacksonville as a suspected electrical fire destroyed the 115,400-square-foot school.

The State Police will investigate the blaze.

The one-story building at 38 Spirit Drive across the street from the football fieldparking lot was eight years old.

The fire broke out in a closet in the library just after 2 p.m. Students in grades seven through nine had been in the building throughout the day for registration.

“Our administrators got everyone out like they’re supposed to. No one got hurt,” said Frank Holman, superintendent of the Cabot School District. “We’re going to get it put out and assess the damage,” Holman said.

Local restaurants brought food and businesses and citizens brought bottled water for fire crews that responded from Cabot, Jacksonville, North Pulaski Fire Rescue, Beebe, Ward and Austin as they battled the blaze in 100-degree heat and gusty winds.

Firefighters had to don safety masks to fight the blaze as they neared the school’s science lab. Two firefighters overheated while they were battling the blaze and were taken by ambulance to the hospital.

Cabot School Board member Brooks Nash, who was principal at Junior High South when Junior High North was built in 1998, called the loss of the district’s newest junior high building tragic.

“Something like this would hurt any time, but especially right here at the beginning of school. We’ve got 1,200 kids displaced and records destroyed,” he said. “Nobody got hurt. That’s the good part if there is a good part. Wegot everyone out of the building as soon as the fire started.”

Mayor Stubby Stumbaugh said he would call in State Police investigators on Friday and probably federal investigators since the loss was more than $1 million.

Stumbaugh, who took his RV to the school so firefighters could use the air conditioner to cool off, was emotional Thursday night as he talked about how proud he was of the way the community responded to the disaster and how thankful he was for the help from neighboring cities.

“I have never been so proud to be a mayor as I was today,” Stumbaugh said. Everyone worked together, he said, the police, fire department, water department, public works and even office workers from city hall.

“And not just city workers, there were teachers and coaches working out there,” he said. “You don’t know what a community we have up here. There’s probably as much bottled water up there as we used putting the fire out. And fried chicken and Subway sandwiches, we didn’t even know for sure who brought it all whether it was businesses or individuals, but we got so much we finally had to stop letting people in.”

At press time it was unclear exactly how the district would deal with the loss. ”We haven’t had a chance to circle the wagons yet,” Nash said.

Alan Turnbo, also a member of the school board, said plans for starting school are tenuous, but he believes it will start on time. Even before the fire was put out, school officials were trying to find empty classrooms in the district’s other schools to house the Junior High North students.

Using portable buildings is an option, but the portable buildings that were at the high school have been gone since school let out in May. More would have to be brought in and possibly set up in the low spot near the building that burned.
As the fire blazed, sobbing teachers comforted each other over the loss of what many considered their home away from home.

“I had just painted 50 white stars on an American flag mural in my room when we evacuated,” said one teacher, wiping away tears and pulling her daughter close.

A new forensics teacher to the district lost 12 years of teaching materials in the fire.

Onlookers gathered at the administration building down from Spirit Drive to watch the fire while Cabot School District employees carried bottled water and ice to the fire crews.

Billowing thunderclouds to the north and south gave one teacher hope for a passing summer thunderstorm to help firefighters stop the flames. But the rain passed Cabot by and Stumbaugh said without the help of neighboring fire departments, they could never have kept the fire from spreading outside the building.

“It did get out into the woods a little but they got it put out,” he said. According to a 2005 state educational facilities report, the school was scheduled to get $339,690 worth of fire and safety improvements in 2008.

Former Cabot School Supt. Don Elliott said, “It was a beautiful school. It’s a loss to the community.

“It’s terrible,” he said. “Things were looking so good with the new high school opening soon.”

”I have a lot of confidence in Dr. Holman, the school board and the principal School has to go on.”
Elliott heads the Cabot Scholarship Foundation, which held its annual banquet at the school cafeteria.

“It had the largest cafeteria in the district,” Elliott said.

Garrick Feldman contributed to this report.