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School's out at Whatcom until Nov. 12, fire investigation continues

Whatcom Middle School 7th graders Emily  Kerr, 13, left, Ruby Parker, 12, and Lauren Valenti, 12,  watch while Bellingham firefighters spray water on hotspots at the  building fire Thursday morning, Nov. 5, 2009, in Bellingham. " We are worried we are going to get separated, " said Parker.
Whatcom Middle School 7th graders Emily Kerr, 13, left, Ruby Parker, 12, and Lauren Valenti, 12, watch while Bellingham firefighters spray water on hotspots at the building fire Thursday morning, Nov. 5, 2009, in Bellingham. " We are worried we are going to get separated, " said Parker. THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

BELLINGHAM – School is canceled for Whatcom Middle School students and staff until at least Thursday, Nov. 12, giving Bellingham School District officials enough time to work out the details of temporarily housing students elsewhere.

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The 106-year-old school was heavily damaged in a major fire Thursday morning Nov. 5, displacing 580 students and 55 staff members.

All Whatcom parents, guardians and students are invited to a meeting at 6:30 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 9 in the Bellingham High School theater. District officials will share information about student placements and transporation and answer questions at this time.

The meeting is for Whatcom Middle School families only.

After nearly 13 hours on the scene, Bellingham firefighters shut down their command post at about 2:40 p.m., turning the scene over to investigators who will try to determine the cause.

A neighbor of the school at F and Girard streets called 911 shortly after 1 a.m., after seeing fire on the roof. By the time firefighters arrived about 1:15 a.m., the flames were racing across the roof. Within 15 minutes, the fire had worked its way across two-thirds of the roof, Bellingham Fire Chief Bill Boyd said.

The three-alarm fire burned for hours before firefighters had most of it under control by about 7 a.m. A huge column of smoke could be seen for blocks, and the burning smell filled the Fountain, Columbia and downtown districts.

At the height of the fire, flames engulfed the roof and could be seen through the second-floor windows, burning in the classrooms. The school, the oldest in the Bellingham School District, has two floors plus a daylight basement.

The roof collapsed in sections and the second floor was heavily damaged. The school also sustained severe water damage, Boyd said. He called the fire in the historic neighborhood school "a community disaster."

The extent of damage couldn’t be quickly determined Thursday because the structure was still too unsafe to enter. A Seattle engineer who worked on recent seismic upgrades at the school was en route to Bellingham to help assess damage, Assistant Fire Chief Andy Day said.

Boyd said the cause was not immediately known, though the fire appeared to have started on the side of the school closest to downtown, the D Street side.

The school had been undergoing a seismic retrofit since last school year. Bellingham Police Lt. Rick Sucee said workers were seen welding on the roof as late as 10:30 p.m. Wednesday.

The school's 580 students and staff were told not to come to school Thursday or Friday. They do not need to report to the district, said district spokeswoman Tanya Rowe, who was at the scene. All other Bellingham School District schools were in session Thursday.

District officials met throughout the day to discuss the next steps. Whatcom Middle School will not be open for classes any time soon, Rowe said.

Students and staff should check bsd501.org, the district’s news Web site, for updates on where students will be sent, Rowe said.

Whatcom Middle School was first constructed in 1903, making it the oldest existing school building in the district and one of the oldest in the state.

In the early hours of the fire, about 100 firefighters from across Whatcom County were battling the blaze from the ground and ladder trucks.

Water from fighting the blaze poured out school doors and flooded sections of D Street. While the area around the school has been cordoned off for hours, other sections of D Street are now passable. But power was out in the neighborhood around the school.

Increasing winds from an incoming storm helped spread the fire. Authorities spent hours patrolling nearby areas to ensure burning debris did not set nearby homes on fire.

Many of the school's windows had been broken out from the fire. Police fired bean bags into others to break them and provide ventilation.

The Mt. Baker Chapter of the American Red Cross was at the scene helping feed the fire crews, who were rotating shifts. Starbucks sent coffee and McDonald's provided food.

This is the second major fire at a Bellingham middle school in recent years. Kulshan Middle School was gutted by fire in July 1993, just before the new school was set to open. An investigation revealed a faulty electrical connection between a soda machine and an extension cord sparked the fire, which destroyed more than half of the $8.6 million school.

And on New Year's Eve 1935, the then Fairhaven High School, where Fairhaven Middle School now stands, burned down.



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