Oakdale coming to terms with loss of school

OAKDALE — Investigators returned on Thursday to Oakdale Elementary School, most of which was destroyed by fire the day before, as employees and residents tried to come to terms with the tragedy.

An afternoon fire Wednesday destroyed about 80 percent of the old part of the school, with the library, cafeteria, office and over a dozen classrooms bearing the brunt of the fire. A multipurpose room, which also served as a gym, was heavily damaged by smoke.

School Board member Cathy Farris said the loss of the school is sad for the community but that she is thankful the fire occurred when school wasn’t in session.

Farris said students will probably be shuffled around and that portable buildings will likely be moved onto the school grounds once the rubble from the fire is cleared.

“There is a lot to think about and plan, but we hope that when August comes around we will be able to have our students all back,” she said. “I feel like we will be able to replace what we had, but it is just going to take time.”

Construction of a new school would likely take two years to complete, she said.

The fire is believed to have started in the southeast corner of the school at about 4 p.m. Firefighters kept the fire from spreading to the part of the school that houses the classrooms for pre-K through first grade.

State Fire Marshal Chief Deputy Brant Thompson said investigators are still working to determine the cause of the fire and where it originated.

“We intend to be able to determine where the fire originated in the structure and what caused the fire, but we are still in the very early stages of our investigation,” Thompson said. “We hope to be able to tell the story in a couple of days of what happened.”

Investigators were able to recover a fire alarm panel, which officials hope will provide more information on what triggered the fire and where it began.

Investigators were also working to obtain and review information on the layout and design of the structure and the type of safety measures in place.

Several school employees who were in the building before the fire will be interviewed as part of the investigation.

Sandy Jones, who has been a speech therapist at the school for 35 years, was still emotional at the loss.

“It’s hard to watch 35 years of memories go up in smoke. I’ve walked in and out of those doors for 35 years. But we are going to move forward,” Jones said. “Our faculty is like family, and we have been through the good and the bad. We will come out of this even stronger.”

Mayor Gene Paul said the fire has been emotionally devastating for the community, but vowed to prevail.

“When I first heard the elementary school was on fire, I thought it was probably a false alarm or something small,” Paul said. “But when I got in the car headed that way thick black smoke was billowing. I thought, ‘Oh, my God. This is serious.’ ”

He said it was heartbreaking to watch the fire spread and the building collapse.

“It’s sad, and I know there were a lot of memories for people, especially those who started school there,” he said. 

“My grandchildren went to school there, and they loved it. I know they are heartbroken, but we will regroup and come together and move on with a positive attitude.”

Several area churches and the city are offering available space for the school, if needed.

””Oakdale Elementary School Fire””Oakdale Elementary School Fire””

Smoldering rubble is all that remains of a large part of Oakdale Elementary School on Thursday after a fire destroyed the library, cafeteria, office and more than a dozen classrooms. The cause of the fire remains under investigation.

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