July 04--An early-morning blaze Thursday that destroyed Sanford's historic Little Red School House -- one of Seminole County's first public schools -- was among six fires in four days that may have been deliberately set.
Three of those blazes -- including the schoolhouse fire -- occurred in a Sanford neighborhood listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
"It's a loss of our history," said Christine Dalton, Sanford's historic-preservation officer. "These buildings are irreplaceable. ... This is horrible."
Built in 1883, the Little Red School House on Palmetto Avenue originally served as a public school for white children and later became a soup kitchen, an arts center and a drug-treatment facility.
When firefighters arrived at the schoolhouse shortly after being called about 2:45 a.m., flames were shooting through the roof as wooden beams fell. No one was hurt.
"I stumbled outside, and I couldn't believe what I was seeing," said Nicole Geffner, who lives about two blocks away on Palmetto. "It was terrifying. ... Flames were coming out of the roof."
It was too dangerous to go inside the building, so firefighters jumped into a large ladder truck and sprayed water at the flames from above.
They had just gotten the blaze under control when they were called to a second fire blocks away at a vacant home at 2010 S. Maple Ave. So firefighters split into teams to battle the two fires.
But while battling the second fire, another call came -- this one from Seminole County Fire Rescue, which needed help with a third fire at another empty home at 3912 N. Ronald Reagan Blvd. about 4:40 a.m., said Mark James, a Sanford fire inspector.
Then, yet another fire was reported at an unoccupied home at 4850 Hester Ave. in Seminole County about 6:09 a.m.
Officials with Seminole County Fire Rescue and Sanford Fire Department said it's rare to have four fires in a four-hour time span, but it's a scenario they're trained to handle.
The blazes Thursday broke out four days after two other fires destroyed an empty house and damaged another in Sanford's historic district.
On Sunday night, fire destroyed a vacant early-20th-century home on Palmetto Avenue just two blocks south of the 131-year-old historic schoolhouse. Moments later, another blaze damaged a historic house one block over on Sanford Avenue.
The empty structure on Sanford Avenue, built in 1920, was the former home of J.N. Crooms, a prominent black educator in Sanford in the early 1900s.
State Fire Marshal investigators are visiting each of the six fire locations. Evidence of an accelerant was found amid the charred remains at the Little Red School House, and investigators said all the other blazes were suspicious.
"At this point we have not tied them together," Sanford fire inspector Mark Minnetto said of the three fires in the city's historic district and the fourth on Maple. "We're treating them as suspicious."
At the historic schoolhouse, it appeared that the fire started at the rear of the structure, James said.
While inspectors walked around the smoldering shell of the old schoolhouse, Molly Pflueger stood on the sidewalk holding back tears. She is a fourth-generation Sanford resident, and her late grandmother, Renie Lefler, taught young girls at the schoolhouse in 1915.
"This is absolutely heart-wrenching," she said. "This is part of Sanford, and now it's gone ... I'm just heartbroken."
The Little Red School House has had a rich history. Since it stopped serving students in the early 1960s, the white building with red trim just south of downtown has served as a soup kitchen, arts center and treatment center for drug-addicted women.
The city of Sanford, which owns the schoolhouse, had been trying to sell the 3,700-square-foot building, which had fallen into disrepair in recent years.