By: KENNETH DEAN, Staff Writer March 09, 2005

MALAKOFF - Local, state and federal fire investigators were on site Wednesday at the Malakoff Elementary School to determine if arson was the cause of an early morning fire that destroyed the building that housed the school's prekindergarten through first-grade students.

Henderson County Fire Marshal Bob Calder said the blaze began about 3:30 Wednesday morning and quickly became uncontrollable.

"They (firefighters) first made an entry attack, but they saw the ceiling swelling and beams giving way so they pulled back and began to take a defensive position with an aerial attack," he said.

Calder said 60 firefighters from Malakoff, Payne Springs, Log Cabin, Trinidad, Gun Barrel City and Mabank responded to the fire that claimed the school at 310 N. Terry.

"The school is a total loss and early damage estimates are between $5 and $6 million," he said.

Exhausted firefighters rested as fresh crews battled hot spots during the midmorning hours.

Payne Springs Fire Chief Randy Harley told his 12 firefighters to make sure they stayed hydrated and rest.

"Look here guys we're going back into the building in a few so make sure you get some rest and something to drink. Safety is the most important thing," he told his department.

Harley said a fuel truck had been called in because the engines had been running all morning to pump water and was critically low on fuel.

"We've got a truck coming to bring us fuel. We can't afford to run out of gas, because we can't pump water if the truck isn't working and we are still fighting" he said.

Calder said as the fire spread more than 90 percent of the roof collapsed.

"We are watching the exterior walls right now, because some are leaning in and that is a lot of weight. We don't know if a collapse will happen, but we are taking all precautions," he said.

He said it was too early to determine the cause of the fire or where the fire began, but one firefighter said his department first met heavy flames and smoke toward the rear of the 27,963-square-foot building.

Firefighters were still battling flames close to noon on Wednesday.

"What I am hearing now is that most of the fire is on the ground level. There was a lot of fire load in there with all the desks and paper. The stiff northeast wind we are getting now isn't helping us any," he said.

School officials said the building housed 225 students in the pre-kindergarten and first-grade classes, the school's library and the administration offices.

Beverly Massingill, Malakoff Independent School District, said the district acted quickly to notify parents, but students who were left at home to catch a bus were picked up and taken to the high school.

"Of course this is a difficult situation, but everything has been great and we have had a lot of support from other school districts from all over and the community. We are dealing with a loss, but we will make it," she said. "No one was hurt and that is the important thing."

Calder said he called in arson investigators from the state fire marshal's office and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) for additional help.

Clay Alexander, resident senior ATF agent in charge in the Tyler bureau, said he had called in a National Response Team (NRT), to aid in the investigation.

The NRT consists of four teams organized geographically to cover the United States. Each team can respond within 24 hours to assist state and local law enforce-ment/fire service personnel in onsite investigations.

The ATF Web site states the team was formed in 1978 to assist federal, state, and local investigators in meeting the challenges faced at the scenes of significant arson and explosives incidents.

Alexander said the NRT team had been mobilized and would be on the scene by 2 p.m. Thursday to begin assisting in the investigation with its expertise and heavy equipment.

He said the mobilization of the team did not indicate the cause of the fire was arson.

"They (the NRT) can also be called in because of the magnitude of the scene and to assist in smaller communities, which Malakoff is," Alexander said. "It does not mean this was arson."

Kenneth Dean covers police, fire, and public safety organizations, and Cherokee and Rusk counties. He can be reached at 903.596.6353. e-mail:

ŠTyler Morning Telegraph 2005