Whitehorse Daily Star

School Fire in Old Crow

The Grades 7 to 9 students were watching trapper Stephen Frost’s demonstration on how to skin a wolverine when the news broke shortly after lunch time Tuesday that the Old Crow school was on fire.

By Whitehorse Star on January 29, 1997

The principal appeared at the classroom door and ordered everyone out of the building, substitute teacher Joy Snyder said in an interview from Old Crow yesterday.

She recalls the smoke rising from the classroom floor, and a strange odor resembling burning rubber filling the air.

In faster than a minute, the Chief Zzeh Gittlit School was empty.

“We were all standing in front of the school, counting all the kids,” Snyder said. “You could see smoke coming from the entire bottom of the school.”

That image has since been reduced to the smouldering structural remnants littering the community of 284 people, about 1,000 kilometres north of Whitehorse.

“It looks sad and pathetic and sorry,” Richard Burke, the principal of the school of 60 students, said of the site in an interview this morning. “It’s a burned-out wreck.”

The school, its adjacent teachers’ residence and a nearby Department of Renewable Resources office have burned down.

Government officials are estimating the cost of replacing the school to be about $10 million.

The community is fortunate that the school staff and students escaped the blaze without injury, and that the flames were tamed without further structural damage to nearby buildings, said Burke.

"We’re just very lucky that, number one, the children got out,” he said. “I think the floor collapsed very quickly after.

“And, number two, that we didn’t have a big gale. Had we had a big gale, we would have been incinerated. There are oil tanks quite near to the school.”

Weather conditions in Old Crow were clear and calm Tuesday, residents said. Temperatures ranged between -35 and -38C.

The principal of eight years said he spent a sleepless night at the nursing station after he and three other teachers lost their homes in the blaze. Today, he was mourning the loss of some of his possessions.

“I miss my books terribly,” he said.

Burke had evacuated the school after noticing the smoke coming from the building’s electrical panel. He firmly believes the fire started beneath the building, but does not yet know the cause.

The students were escorted to the nursing station, kiddy-corner to the school.

“There, we started singing songs,” said Burke. “The little ones were all upset because they had left their packsacks and teddy bears behind.”

Later, the students were moved a safer distance away to the RCMP detachment.

Everyone could sense there was an emergency, but there was an initial sense of incredulity surrounding the event, Snyder recalled.

“Once we were outside, we saw the smoke and we knew. It was kind of disbelief at first.

I’m standing outside without a coat, thinking that this is inconvenient. It took me quite a while to realize that this was a disaster.”

RCMP Const. Karen Olito spent the entire afternoon and evening at the fire scene. By early this morning, there was little left besides pieces of tin.

“It’s pretty much flat and smouldering,” she said of her 1 a.m.-observations. “It’s devastating.”

She spoke of the long human assembly line that helped remove the teachers’ personal belongings from their vulnerable apartments.

“I don’t think there was one person in this community that wasn’t helping,” she said.

“Everybody was helping.

“There was 100 toboggans there with everybody’s stuff. We had a pile of things in front of our office; it was larger than life.”

Volunteers used water from the water delivery truck, she said. They also had the assistance of a fire truck.

The townsfolk have been meeting today in the community all, using the building as somewhat of a refuge. There, people are making bread, sandwiches and soup for everyone, said Olito.

The constable said the school’s alarm bell went off at around 1 p.m. She believes student Gordon Frost activated it.

Mary Jacobsen was in her home a few blocks away from the school when she heard the siren’s warning sound throughout the community.

There had been false alarms in the past, sometimes in the middle of the night, she noted. But, “I ran out because I saw some other mothers running, and I thought it was definitely real.”

Jacobsen quickly located her teary-eyed son, enrolled in kindergarten at the school.

“I couldn’t see any flames when I went down to the school, but there was lots of smoke earlier today,” Jacobson said at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday.

“At this point, three city blocks from the school, I can see some fire and smoke. The smoke is billowing straight up into the air.”

The Yukon’s fire marshal and the RCMP’s fire expert are among the assembly of people flown to Old Crow this morning. The cause of the fire has not yet been released.

There were no school lessons in Old Crow today.

The school contained four classrooms, a library and a gymnasium.

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