February 1, 1988, a relatively quiet Monday morning, marked the beginning of the second semester of classes at Ferguson Middle School.
Overcast skies and cool temperatures surrounded the three campus buildings known as the West Building, East Building, and the Annex.
Between 8:30 a.m. and 9:30 a.m., the office noticed some difficulty with the intercom system. Calls between office and classrooms were difficult and “call in” lights came on without intent. Custodians were notified and asked to check into the problem. About 9:45 a.m., two students from our A/V Lab, located in the West Building, came into the office indicating that they smelled smoke in the hallway. An Assistant Principal immediately left his office and headed to the West Building. At 9:50 a.m., the bell rang for students to be dismissed to their third hour class. A teacher in the hallway opposite the A/V room saw smoke in the ceiling around a fluorescent light fixture. As her students came into class, she noticed the amount of smoke was increasing. She, unsuccessfully, attempted to call the office. Realizing that the intercom was out of order and smoke was increasing, she began telling students to calmly exit the building. The Assistant Principal on the scene attempted to notify the office of the smoke as did several teachers. At approximately 9:55 a.m., the room-to-room intercom system was completely inoperable. Again, alerted to the situation by students sent by teachers, the secretary made an “all call” announcement asking students to exit the West Building immediately.
At this time, the “all call” system of the intercom was still functional. Responding to the first teacher who noticed smoke and the “all call” students and teachers exited the building as quietly and calmly as possible. All students were out of the building by 9:57 a.m. thanks to efficient teacher-to-teacher communication. At 9:58 a.m. the secretary placed a call to the Ferguson Fire Department and notified the Superintendent’s Office of the fire. The fireman arrived on the scene at approximately 10:03 a.m.
While the smoke continued to increase, all students from the West Building were directed to move into the East Building gymnasium. One administrator and the Fire Chief went through the West Building checking rest rooms and all classrooms to make sure that no students remained. At approximately 10:08 a.m. the halls of the West Building were smoke-filled and all students had been safely evacuated into the East Building gym. From 10:10 a.m. to 11:05 a.m. the fireman tore holes in the attic and roof and walked the halls trying to locate the source of the fire. Their attempts were unsuccessful. At approximately 11:10 a.m., the heat had grown to such an enormous temperature in the attic that the entire roof exploded into flames. Numerous fire trucks, news media vans, and interested community members assembled to view the eigtht alarm blaze.
Even before busses were called to dismiss school, many of the bus drivers (who had completed their routes and were on their way home) heard the news announcements regarding the fire at Ferguson Middle School. Realizing the need for transportation, enough drivers returned to the bus depot to help transport students home. By 11:30 a.m. busses had arrived and all students left Ferguson Middle School not knowing when they would return. From 11:30 a.m., teachers, parents and students from the community stood in amazement watching the tremendous devastation occurring to a beloved school. A seventh grader perched himself on his bicycle seat and looked sadly at the smoking debris. “At first everybody joked around - “oh boy, no school,” he said. “But deep down inside, I think they felt something. I went home and cried.” People lingered trying to absorb the loss personally and to the community. The loss was personal, since many of those present represented second or third generations who have attended Ferguson Middle School.
Watching the building burn, I imagined one crisis after another developing. What do we do first? How do I regain order? What questions will the media want to know and how will I answer? How will we continue this school year? How can I keep the staff together? As I watched the roof crumble in blackened debris, I could also see the spirits of teachers and other staff tumble and fall. Perhaps an opportunity to make a positive impact existed somewhere in this nightmarish event. Communications appeared to be the probable key to success or failure during this tragedy.
We were trained in what to do in a fire situation if we were occupying the building. We knew how to get out of the building. We didn't think about the devastating aftermath. The success of the recovery was due to the unselfish participation of students, parents and the community. A contingency plan would have reduced our anguish considerably and helped direct the efforts of everyone.
Written by Daryl K. Hall, Principal, Ferguson-Florissant School District.
This article adapted from Vol. 2, No. 4, p. 34.