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Staff and students adjust after fire

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River Falls, 54022

River Falls Wisconsin 2815 Prairie Drive / P.O. Box 25 54022

The Hudson Middle School is pretty much back to normal operations following a fire on Jan. 25 that closed the school to students for three days.

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The exact cause of the fire is still being investigated but it appears to have been caused by an electrical cord that malfunctioned. The cause did not appear to involve any of the electrical wiring in the building itself.

Principal Dan Koch said the school has a crisis plan in place and, while no emergency fits exactly, it did what it was supposed to do.

Koch got a phone call from one of the school custodians around 11 p.m. that Wednesday night. A custodian had checked the school when he heard an alarm and called Koch to say he thought there was a fire and that he had called the fire department. The other two people in the building with the custodian were accounted for and all right, a little unnerved according to the principal, but all right.

Koch arrived at the school just in front of the Hudson Fire Department. "Everything looked normal at the south doors but once I went inside I was shocked at how much smoke there was," said Koch.

As he proceeded down the hallway toward the media center, the smoke became thicker and visibility got poorer. The firemen coming into the building behind him were all wearing oxygen masks and the principal decided to turn back and let them do their job.

Within an hour the fire department had the fire out and had brought in large fans that began pulling out the worst of the smoke. Koch said he was impressed by how quickly and efficiently the Hudson Fire Department did their job.

"We all just assume that our public services will be there to do the job but when you actually see them in action, it is pretty impressive. We all really appreciate the job they did," said Koch.

A long night

Koch notified Arnie Fett, the district's director of Fiscal Operations, shortly after he was called. Fett in turn notified Superintendent Mary Bowen-Eggebraaten and personnel director Bob Benoy. All three administrators joined Koch at the school shortly after they were notified.

Together they made a quick assessment of the damage once the fire was out and some of the smoke began to clear. There would be no school the next day and staff and students had to be notified. Around 1:30 a.m. Koch called his associate principals, Dianne Franklin and Jim Dalluhn, and counselors who put in motion the school's "crisis calling tree" to alert the rest of the staff about what had happened. At 5 a.m. the school secretaries came in to assist with the calling tree.

Koch said no one in the district had had any prior experience with a fire of this nature so it was uncertain how long it would be before students could come back. "Our first concern has to be their safety and the quality of the environment in the school," said Koch. "We took it a day at a time and tried to keep families as informed as we could. We know it was awkward for them and difficult to plan, but we didn't know what to expect ourselves. It was a new experience for everybody."

Word got out to the school's 1,100 students through the early-morning media and by word of mouth. Teachers, however, reported as usual the morning after the fire. Koch said the teachers whose rooms were directly impacted by the fire had it the worst. Teachers in the houses adjacent to Camelot House were also affected by heavy smoke and water damage. Teachers and staff in other parts of the school came in to find that residue from the fire and smoke had been carried throughout the building through the hallways and the ventilation system.

The clean-up would require professional handling. Those teachers whose classrooms did not suffer damage used the days to work on curriculum and staff development projects. "Teachers always need time and there is never enough of it in a day. This was a unique opportunity for many of them whose classrooms were less affected by the fire to do work on curriculum and unit designs. It was valuable time put to very good use," said Koch.

Koch said the middle school staff has always worked as a team but believes their response to this crisis added another dimension to that relationship. "I am so proud of how everyone responded. They all have a genuine understanding of what it means to be part of a team. Everywhere you looked, you saw teachers helping teachers, sharing space and equipment and materials. Every person stepped up to help in any way they could."

Teachers whose classrooms were directly affected by the fire had to make a detailed inventory of everything that was damaged or lost, from lab equipment to instructional materials to personal effects. Some items could be immediately thrown away, others had to be stored in trailers on site to evaluate later.

Cynthia Landers' life science classroom in Camelot House was also home to several animals, including a guinea pig, two rabbits, birds and two lizards. One of the rabbits and the guinea pig died from smoke inhalation. The surviving animals were checked out by personnel from Hillcrest Animal Hospital, cleaned up and are living in another science classroom until they can return "home."

A pre-spring cleaning

Employees of Restoration Professionals of Roseville, Minn., were at the school early the morning after the fire to begin the task of cleaning the school. Koch said he learned more than he ever dreamed about fires and the damage they do. "It is so much more pervasive than I thought. We expect the fire and water damage, but the smoke - it gets in everywhere. After a while you stop smelling it, but it still gets into equipment and onto every surface. It runs through any opening, follows I beams in the walls. I won't ever forget seeing it billow up through the two-stories of the media center. It just spread everywhere."

Restoration workers began the clean-up Thursday morning and worked straight through the weekend. By Monday the school was cleaned from top to bottom. But before students could return, air quality tests needed to be completed, a process that takes a minimum of 24 hours. Samples were taken from 18 locations in the school. The results were called into Fett at 2 a.m. on Jan. 31, giving the all clear for students to return to school. Parents with children who had asthma or respiratory conditions or other special needs were given the option to keep their children out longer if they desired.

All the school computers and other electronic equipment had to be sent out for cleaning. All but three computers have been returned in good working order.

To date, Landers' science classroom where the fire began is still being refitted. Carpeting has been replaced in all other areas where it was required. The fact that the worst damage was in science labs where the students are more "hands on" has made things more difficult but not impossible, according to Koch. "They have and are continuing to do a marvelous job."

Koch also has high praise for the custodians who worked to remove the damaged materials, carpet and furniture and assist with the clean-up from that first night right through to rebuilding and reinstalling lockers after new carpeting was laid. He believes the damage could have been much worse if they hadn't acted as quickly as they did in discovering the fire.

He also noted the work done by the school's office staff and his administrators who he said went above and beyond what was expected at every turn and said he especially appreciated what he called the invaluable support he received from Fett throughout the last weeks.

While most believe three days off school would be like a mini vacation for middle school students, Koch said his students appeared glad to be back on Jan. 31. "Middle-schoolers like to be in school. I know that sounds funny but it's true. They are very social. They like to be with their friends, be part of the scene. And they wanted to see the place for themselves. It was a good feeling to have them back where they belonged."

The district has requested a waiver from the State Department of Public Instruction so that the three days will not have to be made up by students, and they expect it will be granted.

He said teachers will likely be back in the damaged classrooms in the next few weeks and that replacement supplies and equipment will keep arriving but, for the most part, the school is operating normally, a condition he now truly appreciates.

"The bottom line - in a situation like this, everyone here was at their best and really rose to the occasion."

What it cost

According to Director of Fiscal Operations Arnie Fett, the cost of the Jan. 25 Middle School fire is estimated at between $700,000-800,000. That includes the complete refitting of two science labs, carpeting in several classrooms and common areas, the replacement of instructional materials and supplies and a floor-to-ceiling professional cleaning of the entire school including every book in the media center. The cost is covered by insurance minus the district's $5,000 deductible.

The district's state aid will not be affected by the three days students stayed home. Teachers worked all three days in accordance with their contract.

Meg Heaton can be reached at mheaton@rivertowns.net.

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