Four volunteer firefighters Tuesday night manning two hoses were barely visible, hidden by intense smoke as they crouched in front of the double doors of the auditorium located on the campus of the mostly vacant Powers Elementary School. They fought to get a foothold inside the doors so they could better fight the raging fire that began around 7 p.m. Suddenly the fire vented violently above them where the brick walls met the roof.
"If they had been in front of that venting, they would have been incinerated," said Powers Volunteer Fire Department spokesman and fireman Lance Chancellor Wednesday morning. "The fire was burning so hot and fast, fed by the old pine lumber used to build the school, it had to go somewhere."
When it vented, said Chancellor, the flames shot 30 feet horizontally. He said it looked like shooting a flame thrower.
"At that point, when we realized the fire was moving too fast and was too hot to extinguish safely, we backed off to fight in a defensive posture," Chancellor said.
There was no immediate information available as to the cause of the fire that totally destroyed the school located on Highway 184 East. Three firefighters were treated for heat exhaustion and 32 others sought shelter at a triage tent set up by First Responders and paramedics who arrived on the scene. The blaze that lasted almost five hours. At the height of the event, Chancellor said 35 firefighters went to the first aid tent to receive oxygen, water and a few moments of rest.
"It was so hot that we had to hose down the fire trucks that were sitting 50-60 feet away while we fought the fire," said Chancellor. "I've never been to a hotter fire."
Another contributing factor was the warm, humid weather that helped escalate the exhaustion factor of the men and women on the scene. Community support for the 10 stations who answered the call deploying more than 70 firefighters was immediate and welcomed.
"We had people we didn't even know bringing us bottled water, ice, rags, drinks, just about everything we could want during the whole time," Chancellor said. "When you are all used up with fatigue and you see people doing that, it really makes you feel proud to be a part of Jones County."
At one point, Northeast Jones High School was opened up on the orders of Jones County School Superintendent Thomas Prine so ice could be brought in.
At approximately 7 p.m. the first alarm to the scene went out to Powers, M&M, and Glade volunteer departments. In the span of an hour, three more alarms sounded bringing with them men and machines from Rustin, Sandersville, Pleasant Grove, Shady Grove and Sharon departments. The fifth and final alarm, signaling the toll taken by the fire on men and material, went out as a countywide call for manpower.
The school, which closed its doors in 1997, had been a fixture on Highway 184. Many people living in the area attended classes there over the decades. Residents who had graduated from the school in years past drove slowly through the parking lot Wednesday morning looking at the charred ruins.
"I graduated from the sixth grade in the 1940s from this school," said one passerby. "It is a shame to see it this way."
The ruins of the school were still smoldering Wednesday morning when at around 8 a.m. many of the same firefighters got a call to a mobile home fire located at #4 Mary Ann Tolbert Road just off Township Road. When Glade VFD engines and firemen arrived, they found a mobile home being used as a storage building engulfed in smoke and flames. Powers and M&M engines and men arrived minutes later to begin fighting their second fire alongside Glade VFD in roughly eight hours.
The mobile home, owned by Michelle Parker was, according to fire officials on the scene, packed with clothes and furniture stored more than five feet high. The majority of the flames on one end of the structure seemed to be coming from densely packed clothes and resisted efforts by firefighters to water down the blaze.