Fire Engulfs Utah Junior High School

The gymnasium roof had collapsed, and the gym was completely consumed by flames.


SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- A six-alarm fire Monday destroyed a junior high school, leaving officials scrambling to place 850 students for the fall term that starts in less than seven weeks.

Fire Capt. Gaylord Scott said the building in southeast Salt Lake City was a total loss. The cause hadn't been determined, but Scott wasn't ruling out arson.

''It grew too big, too fast,'' he said.

''It doesn't look good in terms of the structure,'' Superintendent Dr. Steve Ronnenkamp said Monday after getting a quick visual inspection of Wasatch Junior High.

He said they don't expect to open for classes that start Aug. 29, and will begin a series of meetings Tuesday about how and where to place the students.

''It's just a building, but a building is a place where people are invested in each other's lives, and this one is toast,'' said Principal Doug Bingham.

Bingham and another district official heard the fire alarm during the lunch hour Monday, and found flames shooting out of a computer server in the media room.

They couldn't douse the flames, and evacuated the building along with eight other adults.

School was not in session for the summer, so no children had to be evacuated. There were no injuries, but one of about 200 firefighters working in 90 degree temperatures was hospitalized for heat exhaustion.

The two-story school built in 1959 had no sprinkler system, Scott said. And the common attic just below the low, flat roof, allowed the fire to move quickly. At one point, smoke from the fire could be seen 10 miles away from downtown Salt Lake City.

Scott said there was little firefighters could do to stop. Flames gutted a wing of classrooms along the front of the building and spread quickly to the school gymnasium, caving in the roof, Scott said. About four hours after the blaze started it was beginning to run out of fuels and burn itself out, he said.

Kathy Kerby, whose classroom is next to the media room, has taught 8th grade English and history at the school for 17 years. She was one of many teachers, parents and students drawn to the fire, many crying over the loss.

''Our school has a tremendous spirit, but I'm afraid we will probably not come back together as a school,'' she said, counting off losses of 13 laptop computers and 12 boxes of instructional materials that she has been working on this summer.

James Glover and Michael Didier, both 14, were collecting thin pieces of the charred roof that had blown into neighboring yards _ ''just to have some memories of your school,'' said Glover.

''It's your comfort zone, you're situated and you don't want to move and now you're going to have to,'' said Didier.

PTA President Jamileh Jameson has two children enrolled at the open enrollment school that draws students from as far away as Park City because of its reputation for high academics and the arts.

She was driving her children to an appointment when she saw the flames. ''We're devastated,'' she said.