Crews from 5 counties extinguish accidental blaze

Published 5:00 am Friday, September 17, 2004

The “Old Green Building” wasn’t supposed to go out likethis.

Although it was to be demolished in the near future, seeing theoriginal West Lincoln school building on fire was no less shockingor saddening to hundreds of people who gathered to watch or offerassistance as area firefighters battled the blaze Thursdaynight.

“It’s a lot of memories going up in flames,” said Judy Smith, a1969 graduate who now works as the school’s secretary-bookkeeper.”It’s a part of the community, and it’s like losing a member of thefamily.”

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The fire was spotted around 6:30 p.m. when Principal Jason Casecame by to check on the school, which was closed Thursday due tothe threat of Hurricane Ivan.

The fire started in the east side of the building in the areawhere electrical lines fed into the building, said DustinBairfield, Lincoln County fire investigator. Following aninspection by him and the state fire marshal, Bairfield said thefire has been ruled accidental.

After the fire was out, the building’s remains were torn downand separated from the new school building, Bairfield said. Classeswere canceled for today.

Superintendent Terry Brister said the school board was to openbids next Thursday for the building’s demolition.

“I wanted it down, but I didn’t want it this way,” Brister saidas firefighters from five counties fought to keep the fire fromspreading to other parts of the campus.

Volunteer fire departments from Lincoln, Lawrence, Franklin,Copiah and Amite counties were dispatched. They came from as faraway as the Strong Hope community, just above Wesson; Smithdale;Bude; and Mars Hill, in Amite County.

Lincoln County Fire Coordinator Clifford Galey said the buildingwas fully involved when firefighters arrived at the scene shortlybefore 7 p.m. Galey said fire equipment and firefighters from 20departments responded to the blaze.

“We rolled everything we had in Lincoln County and thenrequested backup from surrounding counties,” Galey said.

With the building in a rural area, maintaining a water supplywas one of the firefighters’ main obstacles. Galey said two nearbyfire hydrants were insufficient and it took some time for otherdepartments to bring water from so far away, but the situationimproved once water arrived.

“We were able to keep up with it then,” Galey said.

Galey estimated the fire was under control by around 11 p.m.Firefighters were on scene until about 1:30 a.m. today.

Officials reported no injuries, but one firefighter was treatedat the scene for heat exhaustion.

American Red Cross officials were present to assist firefightersbattling exhaustion and extreme temperatures. For relief workers,the blaze represented a brief shift in focus from helping refugeesfrom Hurricane Ivan to helping in their home area.

“I came straight from the shelter to here,” said Kim Carr, ARCdisaster relief coordinator.

Dolly Moore, ARC official, said workers were delivering waterand other refreshments to firefighters.

“We’re filling up coolers and sending them that way and they’resending them back empty,” said Layla Edwards, ARC executivedirector.

Witnesses said they could see smoke billowing from as far asseven miles away.

“You could feel the heat from the other side of the road,” saidJanice Davis, who has taught at West Lincoln for six years.

Other onlookers included current and former students.

“I saw that building built and I saw it burn down,” said JamesKeen, a 1948 graduate who later represented the West Lincoln areaon the school board. “You’ve got a lot of memories and sad feelingseven though it was going to be torn down.”

Casey Roberts, a senior this year at West Lincoln, said the firewas a shock and would have a big impact on the community.

“West Lincoln is a small school, and everybody’s friends,” saidRoberts, who expected some “weird” feelings when classesresume.

Junior Haley Smith, who has attended West Lincoln since she wasin the fourth grade, was one of the first people on the scene.

“I really didn’t know what to think. I was crying,” she said.”I’d had class in that building.”

Fannie Lee Lewis, who taught at West Lincoln from 1941 to 1980,said the building, which has become known as the “Old GreenBuilding,” was built in 1937 with two three-classroom wings. Lewis,90, taught second grade in the building for 27 years.

Like others, Lewis expressed disappointment to hear that thebuilding had burned.

“I was very much disturbed,” said Lewis, adding that she triedto get to the school last night but was turned away by lawenforcement officers controlling traffic. “It has a lot of goodmemories.”

The building was gradually added onto over the years with ascience building and auditorium. It was still used as a study halland for storage of some athletic equipment and old books, Bristersaid.

Brister said classes were expected to resume Monday afterDepartment of Environmental Quality officials inspect debris anddetermine it is safe for students to be around.

Students, school officials and others expressed appreciation forthe number of volunteers who rushed to the school in efforts tocontrol the fire.

“I think they’re very supportive. I appreciate them coming fromso far,” said Talashia Fells, a ninth grader who has been at WestLincoln since kindergarten.

Brister said he appreciated the firefighters’ dedicatedefforts.

“I was impressed with the caliber of people we have asfirefighters,” Brister said. “And our surrounding counties were sogood to let their volunteers come in.”

Bairfield agreed.

“It was a real good effort, not only by our firefighters butalso from the surrounding areas,” he said. “That really helped ussave the new building.”

While most of the students and faculty had prepared themselvesto see the building demolished, they had not anticipated seeing itin such a tragic way.

“It’s still sad to see it go,” said Assistant Principal LesJordan, who has taught at the school 13 years.

Prior to old building’s scheduled demolition, Brister said hehad planned to allow community members to retrieve bricks or othermementos. However, after the fire, he said that will not bepossible until after the DEQ evaluation.

Brister said district officials sought input from state archivesand history officials regarding the possibility of restoring thebuilding. However, they determined it was too far gone to pursuethose plans.

“You don’t realize how much a building means until somethinglike this,” Brister said. “It’s been a community landmark for manyyears and meant so much to the community.”

DAILY LEADER writer Kim Windmiller contributed to thisreport.