Superintendent Damon Alvey first learned that a fire may be breaking out at Vermillion High School early in the morning of Thursday, Sept. 16 from a very reliable source – his wife, Linda.
Linda, who coaches the Vermillion High School cheerleading squad, was working with her team in the VHS when the school’s fire alarm began sounding at about 6:30 a.m.
Linda called Damon and during a later phone call, he got more than a hunch that the alarm wasn’t a false one.
“She had the cheerleaders in the gymnasium and she called me at about 6:30 and said that the fire alarms were going off,” he said.
Damon’s first advice to her was for her to contact T.J. (Terry Johnson), the school’s head custodian who was in the building at the time. Shannon Farmer, T.J.’s assistant, was also in the building as the two were working on their routine, morning cleanup.
“She (Linda) went into the hallway to see T.J. and she called back and said, ‘I can smell smoke in the hall.’” Damon said. “So, she grabbed the girls and they left the building and T.J. made sure it was evacuated – but the only people in the building at the time were two custodians and the cheerleaders and Linda, of course.
“They did all of the right things – they received notification, they took it seriously, they got the kids out and as I was on my way there, I got a call from the fire surveillance company that monitors our buildings,” he said. “It was within a couple minutes that everyone knew there was a fire.”
No students have been in the high school since the morning of Sept. 16. The school district cancelled classes in the building on that day and have relied on the on-line teaching services and technology designed to cope with COVID-19 to continue providing lessons to high schoolers as steps are taken to investigate the fire’s cause and clean up the water and smoke damage it caused.
“On Friday, the teachers went remote; we had all the plans in place to use remote learning for COVID and they became handy when we had to dismiss high school because of the fire,” Damon said. “We put our remote learning plan into place at the high school for Friday and it will go all the way through this week.”
There are no classes scheduled in the school district on Friday, Sept. 24, because of teacher in-services. Students are scheduled to return to VHS classrooms on Monday, Sept. 27.
“The rest of the buildings have been doing their thing, but the high school will have been remote for a week,” the superintendent said.
The fire began in a storage cabinet in the high school’s chemistry classroom. The event is still being investigated and no formal cause of the fire has been determined, but it appears it is likely electrical.
“It’s a closet within the classroom,” Damon said. “It’s a big classroom and right inside the classroom is a brick closet. Inside that brick closet are two big, heavy doors that are fire-suppressant doors and inside that is chemicals and we’ve got fireproof storage. You store all kinds of stuff in there.
“That appears where it originated,” he said. “Probably an electrical failure on one of the devices in that room, but the fire marshal will report on that once he’s concluded. It appears it started in that room, then it burned into the cabinet and of course started all the wood structures in that room on fire.”
Investigators have indicated that the chemicals in that cabinet had nothing to do with the fire’s start.
“They’re pretty certain that it was a failure of one of the pieces of equipment in the room – an electrical failure – but the fire marshal will identify that,” Damon said. “He was on scene, of course, within a couple hours of the fire and did his report. We haven’t received the final report, yet, but that (the electrical malfunction) seems to be the indication at this time.”
First responders to the alarm last Thursday included the Vermillion Fire Department. Firefighters quickly extinguished the fire using less than 100 gallons of water and began to ventilate the area.
One factor that kept the fire small is the way the chemicals were stored in the classroom.
“Mr. Schloss, our chemistry teacher, did a great job,” Damon said. “He did everything by the book. In terms of storage, he had all the flammable materials stored in the fireproof cabinet in that room like we asked him to do. All the fireproof stuff was locked in there and never was accessed by the fire.
“The fireproof cabinet worked and the teacher had all of his stuff put in there like he should which is really important,” he said. “When firemen are entering a building, they need to know that. Secondly, he had the doors to that cabinet shut which is another important factor because when that fire stayed contained, it just burned the wood shelving and the things that were in that room.”
The fire burned a small portion of ceiling, Damon said.
“But it never got out of that contained space into the regular chemistry classroom or into the hallway and because he had done all of those things and had an inventory of all of his chemicals, he was able to tell the firemen when he got there what was in that room,” the superintendent said.
It’s fortunate that the fire was small enough to be extinguished quickly; the cleanup from the smoke that the small blaze produced, however, has so far been more than a week-long process.
“Smoke filled the entire west wing of the high school,” Damon said. “The entire west wing of the high school was impacted by smoke, but the physical fire damage was limited to that closet.”
About 20 air scrubbers have been at work in VHS following the fire.
“They basically suck the particles in the air in, they run the air through multiple coal-based filters and purify the air and then they spit it back out, so they’re constantly recycling air throughout the building,” the superintendent said.
Johnson Controls, the company that runs the heating, air conditioning and ventilation systems in the district’s buildings, also inspected the fire damage.
“When the fire started, the air conditioning and the ventilation system automatically shuts down,” Damon said. “That prohibits smoke from going up into the duct work and being pushed throughout the building, which is really important.
“The smoke that was going throughout the building came out into the hallway and filtered throughout the building and not through the ceiling and not through the air ducts, which is really important for enhanced cleaning of the air,” he said.
Damon noted there is a small amount of smoke residue throughout hallways and classrooms near where the fire occurred that must be professionally cleaned.
The total damage, dollar-wise, done by the fire to VHS is still unknown.
“We’ve had the fire marshal and we’ve had a couple fire inspectors and our insurance has brought in their own inspectors, our local fire department, of course, was there immediately and everybody has given us their thoughts,” the superintendent said, “but it really has to be the adjuster that will come through.
The adjuster, he said, will inform the district whether ceiling tile and carpet will need to be replaced because it beyond being saved by cleaning.
“Right now, we’re going to have to a thorough, professional cleaning of the space first and then we’ll know exactly if we have certain ceiling tile and carpet that must be replaced,” Damon said. “It’s a floor-to-ceiling clean. When there is smoke in the building, you clean everything, so it’s going to be extensive and that’s why we took this week off from having kids in the building.
“That way we can have our cleaners and our adjusters and our fire folks all doing their thing so that we can get the burned wood and the burned doors out and work on a plan to get it all repaired,” he said.
A cleaning company that specialized in mitigation of smoke and water damage is involved in the cleanup of the high school.
“They have the special equipment, the special skills and the special chemicals to take care of those things,” Damon said. “Our folks have done a great job of cleaning the regular areas of the building and helping out wherever they can, but we wanted the professionals to handle the areas most impacted by the fire event.”
The cleaning professionals have indicated that the porous nature of ceiling tiles means it easily traps smoke to the point that cleaning efforts may not help and the tiles will need to be replaced. Whether that happens can only be determined until the cleaning is complete.
“Overall, we’re just really thankful. It could have been much worse,” the superintendent said. “Everything seems to have worked as they needed to. People in the building did the right thing; our systems worked like we hoped that they would.”
Classes weren’t scheduled to start at the high school until 10 o’clock that morning because of that day’s schedule.
“We didn’t have kids reporting at 8 o’clock. All of our staff had reported, so we put them to work to be out addressing the public and the kids that were coming to the school early,” Damon said. “We needed people to man the parking lot and man the phones and they did that.
“We’re lucky that we had so many things go well, including great first responders with the fire department and the police department that got in there and taking on the fire and knocking down the fire without causing a lot of structural damage,” he said. “We’re very thankful that everything went well that day.”
Damon noted only the west area of the high school was impacted by the fire. That means that the concession area, the gymnasium, the commons and the new administration offices weren’t affected.
The Tanagers hosted a game in the gymnasium Thursday night and soccer matches have been played on the field near the high school.
For the last two days, teachers have been presented their classes remotely from the commons, the gym and the auditorium.
On Tuesday, they were allowed to return to their classrooms to teach remotely for the rest of the week except for the four classrooms near the chemistry lab which still need attention from the professional cleaners.
“We hope by Monday they’re fully functional,” Damon said. “It will take us several weeks to get the chemistry lab up to speed again and back to normal.”