Meadow Heights school fire ruled accidental

Tuesday, July 31, 2007
A classroom at the back of the vocational-agriculture building at Meadow Heights Public School suffered major damage from a fire late Monday night. (Fred Lynch)

PATTON, Mo. -- An electrical problem sparked the fire that gutted a vocational education building on the Meadow Heights School District campus, superintendent Rob Huff said late Tuesday afternoon.

Investigators from the Missouri State Fire Marshal's Office ruled the blaze, which destroyed the interior of the classroom portions of the stand-alone metal building, an accident, Huff said.

"There is no good reason to have a fire and it is going to be a lot of work," Huff said. "But you hate to think that someone would do that deliberately and we are relieved to hear that."

The fire was reported about an hour after sunset Monday, said Dwight McMinn, assistant chief of the North County Fire District. When firefighters arrived at 9:24 p.m., the rear portion of the building was engulfed in flame, he said.

Firefighters from the North County, Sedgewickville, Marble Hill and Millersville fire departments responded to the fire, drawing water from a nearby pond to fight the blaze.

Investigators from the fire marshal's office and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms spent Tuesday afternoon working to pinpoint the cause of the fire. Huff said he received the report of their findings at about 6 p.m.

About 100 students regularly attended classes in the 27-year-old building, which is separated from the main school building by a gravel parking lot. Insurance documents set the value of the building and its contents at $300,000, Huff said, but a more precise determination of the loss will have to wait for estimates from contractors on replacement costs. The loss could also grow when final replacement costs are in for the equipment stored in the building.

The teacher kept a detailed inventory of the equipment in the building, which was stored in the school's central office, Huff said.

There were, however, items in the building that can't be replaced with money, Huff said. "Our FFA chapter is a very strong, very active chapter and they have been very successful. They kept scrapbooks and a very detailed history."

Those scrapbooks, he said, were stored in file cabinets that have not been examined. And banners and other awards kept in the building have not been located.

The regional supervisor of vocational programs for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education visited the district offices Tuesday, Huff said, and the district received calls from other area FFA chapters offering to help replace some of the lost items.

The fire started in the rear of the building, where Tuesday morning steel rafter beams were hanging lose and twisted by the heat. Investigators determined that the an office area where a coffee pot and other electrical appliances were plugged in was the likely starting point, Huff said.

Heaps of badly charred textbooks were mixed in with other debris. The shop portion of the building, which occupied the front two-thirds of the structure, suffered severe smoke and heat damage.

"We'll need to rearrange classroom assignments," Huff said while looking over the scene of the fire Tuesday morning. "We'll be able to cover the seatwork assignments, but the hard part will be the industrial shop. We just don't have any place else to do the work."

A half-dozen charred compressed gas cylinders, several with melted hoses still attached, stood on the gravel parking lot in front of the structure. The heat had allowed gas to begin venting from some of the tanks, McMinn said, but firefighters considered themselves lucky they reached the fire before the tanks warmed to the point of exploding.

Firefighters were warned as they reached the scene that the tanks were in the building, McMinn said.

The tanks contained acetylene, oxygen and argon, Huff said. He praised firefighters for their work, not only in preventing the tanks from rupturing but also for keeping the fire from spreading to nearby buildings, including the school bus shed, and a tank of diesel fuel used for the buses.

"It really makes you appreciate what these guys do," he said.

The building, while it remained standing, is a complete loss, McMinn said. The fire also damaged tables for a new multipurpose room under construction at the school and handrails slated for the building expansion, both of which were stored in the shop area of the damaged building.

Meadow Heights will begin classes Aug. 16, Huff said.

335-6611, extension 127

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