RICHMOND — Fire Chief Scott Barber has replayed the events of July 29, 2018, over in his head a hundred times.
Barber, who oversees the Richmond-Carolina Fire Department, led a team of approximately 135 firefighters representing 25 agencies and countless other volunteers from across the community as they responded to a blaze at the Meadowbrook Waldorf School. Forty trucks were involved, including 23 tankers that carried much of the water needed, almost 2 million gallons in all, over a 24-hour period to fully extinguish the blaze.
Barber still questions what his team could have done differently. He has asked himself and his staff a dozen times whether they could have approached it from a different angle to try and prevent the damage that ultimately led to the school being razed.
“There is nothing we could change,” Barber said last week as he reflected on the one year anniversary of the largest fire response in town history, noting that aside from an unrelated heart attack involving a volunteer at one of the fill sites, there were no injuries to report. “There will always be differences in opinion or response, but I’m proud of what these volunteers did and the way everyone, from across the community, stepped up to help.”
For those at the school and the regional firefighters that handled the response, a look back at the heart-wrenching fire one year ago no longer brings the same pain it once did. Instead both Barber and Beth Riungu, development coordinator for the Meadowbrook Waldorf School, said the blaze proved to spark something far more important: community unity and school pride.
“It has been an extraordinary year that has shown us strengths and talents we didn’t know we had,” Riungu said in a July newsletter to parents and community leaders. “As we move forward with rebuilding, and preparing to provide another year of first-class Waldorf education, we take a moment to remember and to again say thank you for all you have done to support our school.”
A challenging day
A Sunday morning dog-walker was first to notice the thick plume of black smoke rising from the school and called 911, leading to a dispatch for volunteers from Richmond-Carolina and Hope Valley-Wyoming. Barber said as soon as he heard the location, the recently-built facility in a wooded area off Kingstown Road, he knew something was wrong.
“The school building was fully covered by a sprinkler system and we knew it was in working order; we had just checked in with the alarm the previous day and everything was fine,” he said. “The lightning strike triggered the system to malfunction and the alarm never triggered as it should have.”
By the time the first firefighters arrived, the fire had already been burning for at least eight hours. The sprinklers, tied to a water tank on the property, had run dry and the blaze was able to spread into the roofline.
Firefighters attempted to attack the fire from multiple angles but Barber said the fire had already compromised the roof, which was built of a rubberized membrane, and an HVAC unit on the top caved into the building, forcing him to call off the attack.
“As it progressed, the fire became too dangerous to continue. We hoped to save more, but when the HVAC finally collapsed, I told them, ‘that’s it,’” Barber said.
Making matters worse, two Hope Valley-Wyoming firefighters were dealing with issues during the response. One was treated for smoke inhalation and later in the day, a second had a heart attack at a nearby fill site and was rescued by EMS staff on-hand.
Both were able to make a full recovery, fortunately.
The response continued for hours and, with no safe means of attacking the blaze, firefighters were left to combat the fire from the ground. Reinforcements were called and, Barber said, that’s when the community began to truly galvanize.
A true community response
Hot and tired from the morning struggle and even feeling a little defeated, Barber said he still recalls looking up when he thought all hope was lost. That’s when a team of firefighters from the Burrillville area charged over the hill, dressed in full uniform and carrying tools to take charge and provide relief.
“All I could think was, ‘the cavalry is here,’” Barber said.
It wasn’t just the reinforcements that Barber saw, however. Given the first chance to take a breather, he said he looked around and realized how many people were there to help out.
School officials and families had come to town to see how they could help and began serving water to responders; businesses including Kingston Pizza and Alaina’s Ale House at the Beaver River Country Golf Club had closed their doors to the public to provide food; the Providence Canteen had come in to help coordinate rehabilitation; dispatchers across the region coordinated response and coverage; even police and EMS were running around, extending hoses and aiding firefighter response.
Everyone was involved — and it brought strength to both the firefighters and school community.
“I can’t say enough about the community and how they reacted,” Barber said. “We got to see the good inside people first-hand.”
Rebuiling stronger than ever
It didn’t take long for the school community to begin rebuilding, thanks in part to that same community support.
Within 24-hours of the fire, there were multiple fundraisers planned and a Go-Fund Me page was dedicated to the school. Within a week of the blaze, the school had raised thousands to help begin the rebuild process. Within a month, they were settled into a new but temporary home in South Kingstown and ready for the new school year as planned.
In the past few weeks, AA Wrecking has removed the last pieces of concrete from the site — now fondly referred to by the school community as “300K” after the school’s address — and construction crews with New England Construction have set up their site office in preparation to expand the foundation and lay utility pipes and cables, Riungu said. Frames for the walls are being built off-site and are due to arrive in August and work on the school will begin shortly thereafter.
“The new school building is scheduled to be completed in April 2020, with the Community Center following four weeks later,” the school said in a letter to parents.
Riungu said that none of this, however, would have been possible without all the work of those who responded, and those who stepped up once the fire was finally out.
“We are grateful to the emergency responders who came that day, and to the demolition crew that followed,” Riungu said. “Their compassion towards our community as they performed their duties was extraordinary and lifted our spirits as we worked to see what could be salvaged. We are also forever grateful to everyone who rallied to help in the aftermath of the fire.”