Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District spoke to students and staff at Beechwood School on Monday, Sept. 17, five days after an early morning fire, thought to have started from a short circuit, destroyed the administration offices and a third grade classroom at the private K-8 school.
In an interview, Schapelhouman said he used his remarks to comment on the importance of smoke detectors and escape plans, and to compliment the school community on its ability to adapt to and overcome the obstacles created by the fire. "The bad news is there was a fire," he said he told the kids. "The good news is nobody was hurt. ... This is the fastest that we've ever seen a school reopen."
"We try to keep it upbeat," Schapelhouman told the Almanac. "Some things got burnt, but it could have been much worse." The building is one of five on the campus.
The school reopened at 8:30 a.m. Monday, Beechwood staff members told the Almanac in emails. Principal David Laurance "doesn't have an office and he'll be running around the school making sure everything is running smoothly," Office Manager Isabel Jimenez said.
In a statement, investigators say the fire started from a short circuit in an electrical cord in the kitchen and caused losses of about $300,000 to the structure and $100,000 to the contents. No one was injured, but firefighters spent about eight hours and thousands of gallons of water dousing the one-story three-unit portable building, Schapelhouman said. The building contained "a lot of combustible material," he said.
The fire persisted in the debris well after the roof and several walls collapsed. "You're trying to put water on the fire, but (the compartmentalized offices) made it difficult to put the water where the fire is," Fire Inspector Jon Johnston said in an interview.
Firefighters arrived shortly before 4 a.m. and, after dealing with locked gates and bars over classroom windows, they "aggressively attacked" the fire from inside and out, the chief said. They were ordered off the roof and out of the building when it showed signs of collapse.
Fifteen firefighters fought the fire, including personnel from the Redwood City Fire Department, Schapelhouman said. Firefighters were still on the scene as late as 6 p.m. helping school officials with overhaul and salvage, the statement said. Among the recovered items: several laptop computers, a projector and intact filing cabinets.
The school did not have a fire alarm or sprinkler system.
"This is the second modular school building fire in the last year we have had here in Menlo Park," Schapelhouman said. The building dates from 1986 and was meant to be temporary and thus was exempt from certain fire code regulations, he said.
Laurance watched as firefighters retrieved what was left of school records, but much was lost, including homemade bulletin boards and staff photos. "It's just upsetting to people who've worked very very hard to lose (this much)," he said.
A back-to-school picnic scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 15, was canceled. The nonprofit school serves families in the neighborhood and receives 90 percent of its operating funds from donations that range from $5 to $800,000, Laurance said.
Rachel Bickerstaff, parent of two Beechwood alumni, called the school community "a close knit family." The school has one class for each grade, so students get to know each other well as do the parents, she said. Tuition is adjusted to what they can afford.
The school community would gather in the administration building every Thanksgiving to prepare and pack meals, Bickerstaff said. "When you see it looking like this, it's heartbreaking,"
"Y'all better get up, y'all better get up," is what Wesley Barker, an elder of the Calvary Temple Church of God in Christ, remembers from being awakened in his Menlo Park house on Terminal Avenue around 4 a.m. Thursday morning. He walked outside.
"I just stepped out and it was raging," he said of the fire down the block. "I didn't get scared. It was too far away," Barker said in a sidewalk interview with the Almanac. "Man, that fire was raging. My goodness!"
The school, which enrolls about 170 students, was in the news this year when the Menlo Park City Council agreed on April 17 to sell 1.5 acres on Terminal Avenue so the school could expand.