Classroom inferno

A Gilroy firefighter hits hot spots with water as the Glen View

– Teachers, students and staff of Glen View Elementary School
watched as a two-alarm fire burst through a third-grade classroom
and spewed black smoke that could be seen for blocks, destroying
most of the four-classroom wing Tuesday afternoon.
By Lori Stuenkel

Gilroy – Teachers, students and staff of Glen View Elementary School watched as a two-alarm fire burst through a third-grade classroom and spewed black smoke that could be seen for blocks, destroying most of the four-classroom wing Tuesday afternoon.

Neighbors of the campus joined members of the school community, who are on spring break this week, in clusters around the northeast corner of the 600 W. Eighth St. school as firefighters doused flames that engulfed one classroom and part of another, and shot through the roof and rear windows. No students were on campus at the time and no one was injured.

The fire topped off what was a chaotic afternoon for Gilroy and South County emergency responders. Resources were stretched thin for 10 to 15 minutes, said Gilroy Fire Department Division Chief Phil King: Police and fire crews were at the scene of a downed power line at Alexander and Ninth streets – and responding to several fire alarms possibly triggered by the power outage – when the Glen View fire call came in. Gilroy fire’s two engines responded, as well as two California Department of Forestry/South County Fire engines. One engine from Santa Clara County Fire covered the Chestnut Street station in the meantime, and another was en route when it was diverted to a critical medical aid call, King said.

Firefighters arrived at Glen View at 1:17pm, three minutes after receiving the initial call. A third alarm was issued shortly after the first engine got there, to bring additional resources from the county and San Jose, but was soon canceled.

“When they first got here, it was smoke and a little flame – and then they saw it blow up,” King said.

The cause of the fire was not known Tuesday evening, although King said it possibly started outside the building.

“It looks at this point, preliminarily, that it started from the outside with materials – which could have been debris or trash, we don’t know yet – that were in front of the building,” King said.

GFD continued to investigate Tuesday night.

“We could see all the smoke from over on Hanna (Street),” said a seventh-grader from Ascencion Solorsano Middle School who had walked over to watch the scene. “It was all in flames, but they put it out pretty fast.”

News of the fire spread quickly through the tight-knit Glen View community. On the corner of Eighth and Carmel streets, three school employees shook their heads as firefighters found and extinguished flames that lingered in the building’s eaves.

“Oh, it’s horrible,” said Jo Brooks, a literacy facilitator for kindergarten through fifth grade who was alerted to the fire by assessment paraprofessional Kari Hilton, who has been at Glen View for 17 years. “That’s a big loss for the teacher, too.”

Most of the flames were in Room 10, a third-grade classroom belonging to long-time teacher Kathleen Taylor. It was completely destroyed.

“That’s a lifetime of work. All her supplies are gone,” said Helena Guerra, a kindergarten teacher who drove to the campus and noticed the commotion.

The fire also spread through most of Room 9, which houses fourth-graders, and, to a lesser extent, the Room 11, which houses third-graders. Room 12 was mostly undamaged.

Firefighters’ first task was to ensure the flames did not spread to other buildings, King said. Their efforts were helped by walls in the building designed to hinder fires, and it was under control at 1:37pm – 20 minutes after firefighters arrived on scene, he said.

The classrooms did not have any fire sprinklers. In 2002, a law was passed requiring sprinklers to be installed in all newly constructed school buildings, but does not apply to repairs or upgrades. Installation costs of sprinklers and smoke detectors are often seen as too great a preventative expense.

Deputy Fire Marshal Rodger Maggio pointed out that three commercial fires in Gilroy in the past two months were contained by one or two fire sprinklers.

Officials with Gilroy Unified School District said they expect the entire classroom wing will have to be re-built before next fall.

Students will be required to return to class on Monday, following spring break. Principal Marilyn Ayala said she will be sending a letter to parents informing them of the situation.

“We will have school, and we will have available classroom space for all the students,” Superintendent Edwin Diaz said. “It’s going to be tight, and I’m not sure if that’s going to be the permanent plan, but at least we’ll be able to have the kids in a comfortable place Monday.”

All four classrooms, which housed more than 100 students, were to be boarded up Tuesday night, after school district maintenance crews relocated whatever furniture and materials could be saved, Diaz said.

Students from Room 9 will be moved to the library, those from Room 10 will move to Room 25, which had been used for an intervention program. Room 11 will move into the technology center in Room 40, and Room 12 students will move to Room 20, a resource classroom.

“This will affect us for the rest of the year, but at least we’re during a week’s vacation, when we can get organized and open with business as usual on Monday,” Ayala said. “It’s an inconvenience, but we have a plan that I think will get us through the rest of the school year.

Diaz said the district will move quickly to re-build the classrooms. An architect was already on the site Tuesday evening, and district officials were contacting their insurance company to conduct an investigation.

“We’ll wait for that report,” Diaz said. “In the meantime, we’ve already contacted the state to find out what kind of emergency funding is available to us.”

Glen View opened in 1953 and celebrated its 50th anniversary one year ago. The school is home to about 615 students and 36 teachers. On the other side of campus, a new multi-purpose room is under construction, to open next fall.

The power line that fell on Alexander Street knocked out power to 5,000 PG&E customers Tuesday afternoon, company spokesman Jeff Smith said. The reason for the felled line was not known, but Smith said it could be attributed to a large gust of wind.

The Glen View fire and power outage were not related to one another, King said.

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