Whatcom Middle School dirty, wet and charred but structurally intact

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDDecember 5, 2009 

INSIDE WHATCOM MS

Bellingham School District assistant superintendent Ron Cowan takes a photo inside a destroyed classroom during a tour of Whatcom Middle School on Friday morning, Dec. 4, 2009. For more photos of the inside of Whatcom Middle School, which was destroyed by fire Nov.5, go to bellinghamherald.com/photos.

PHILIP A. DWYER — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

BELLINGHAM - The halls and classrooms of Whatcom Middle School are dirty, damp and covered in debris. Light pours through areas of the second floor where the roof collapsed. The gym floor has warped from water damage.

Given the fire that ravaged the building Nov. 5, however, the interior is largely still intact, the structure still stands and the fire damage appears to have been mostly limited to the roof, Bellingham Fire Chief Bill Boyd said.

The fire was spotted shortly after 1 a.m., when neighbors called 911 to report flames on the roof.

Firefighters with the Bellingham Fire Department and other county fire districts spent hours battling the blaze, which has closed the school for the foreseeable future. Its students have been split among four other schools for now.

It will be at least two more weeks until investigators with the Bellingham Fire Department and private companies reach an official determination of the fire's cause, Boyd said.

The private companies have been collecting samples from burned portions of the building for lab testing, which the fire department can't do because it doesn't have a lab, Boyd said. They also may do modeling to test theories on how the flames spread.

In the last week investigators have been able to get inside the school for their first up-close look at the damage, and what they've seen is surprising, Boyd said.

"I was surprised by what I would consider to be a minimal amount of fire damage on the second floor," Boyd said. "Obviously it's a mess that's going to take some cleanup."

Dawson Construction has done emergency shore work to stabilize the building's walls and allow the fire investigators inside.

District officials hope to have an idea of the total damage around the new year.

Boyd said he had been in the building three times, and has toured all three levels. The school has two floors and a daylight basement.

He and other investigators have been focusing on where they believe the fire began near the second floor library, which was under construction as part of a seismic retrofit the school was undergoing.

Boyd said he was proud of firefighters' efforts to limit the damage and perhaps save the building.

"I'm very proud of the efforts the guys did because for a while we weren't sure if we were going to stop (the fire)," Boyd said.

The school still has many recognizable features from before the fire, from water-soaked textbooks still sitting atop desks, to students' posters still hanging on the walls.

"It was kind of eerie, given the amount of fire we had, to walk in the building and see it like a time capsule," Boyd said.

Reach PETER JENSEN at peter.jensen@bellinghamherald.com or call 360-715-2264.

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