Fire destroys BES wing 7/14/2015

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Fire destroys BES wing

By John Howell
After the sun rose Saturday over the charred remains of the Batesville Elementary School kindergarten building, a large Panola County Road Department trackhoe was  digging out a hot spot where the school’s office had been.

By 3 a.m. that morning, most bystanders had drifted away. The stubborn, smoldering blaze appeared to have been brought under control. Volunteers from the many Panola County fire departments who had joined Batesville firefighters for many hours to combat the stubborn, smoldering blaze had been released.

But around 6 a.m., the blaze had suddenly rekindled in the office area, Batesville Fire Chief Tim Taylor said.

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“It just started spewing black smoke and ‘Boom!’ Taylor said.

Firefighters were toned out again. The rekindled blaze again threatened the historic, two-story red brick building that was first built in 1897.

Until the mid-20th Century that building housed all grades. It has subsequently been reconfigured, remodeled and used for so many different ages of children that no one name  has ever stuck. It has always simply been known as the old, red brick school building.

On Friday night and early Saturday morning, the old red brick school building became something of a symbol for firefighters and the spectators who gathered along College, Atwell and Broadway Streets. Firefighters became determined not to let the super-heated flames consuming the adjacent one-story kindergarten building spread to its older neighbor.

Bystanders sensed their determination. Those along College Street were constantly glancing into an upstairs window where a light had been left on inside, looking to see if they could spot any smoke gathering within.

The fire report that dispatched the Batesville Fire Department came in at 9:05 p.m. Friday night. The first firefighters to arrive quickly discovered that the fire had a strong hold in a widespread area between the building’s ceiling and flat roof. At 9:51 they called for more personnel and equipment. Fire trucks and firefighters from throughout the county and the Senatobia Volunteer Fire Department soon joined them.

Around 10:11 p.m., with firefighters from multiple departments pouring water on both the Atwell and College Streets sides of the one-story building, fire trucks emitted loud, startling bursts from their air horns. Three air horn blasts warn of a building’s imminent collapse, Batesville Deputy Fire Chief Jackie Chapman said.  The exterior walls of the building were cracked and buckling. Any firefighter inside a building attempting rescue or recovery knows to get out fast on hearing the blasts. It also warns any firefighter on the outside who has ventured too close to the unstable walls.

The fire appeared determined to crawl down the roof toward the old red brick building. Smoke poured from the space between the roof of the BES office and the colorful blue and white canopy that shades the office windows from late afternoon sun.

Mayor Jerry Autrey and Aldermen Eddie Nabors and Stan Harrison nervously paced among firefighters and bystanders. Assistant City Engineer Byron Houston said that he had initially worried about water pressure. He knew that one city water well had been sidelined several days earlier by a failed pump. Houston said his worry was assuaged by Batesville Sewer and Water Superintendent Mike Ross who had told him that the remaining wells were pumping sufficiently to maintain water tank levels, even as large volumes flowed through fire hoses snaking from hydrants on College, Atwell and Boothe Streets.

More imminent than the threat of running out of water appeared to be a possibility of running out of firefighters. The intense heat from the fire, coupled with the temperature and humidity on a July night in Mississippi quickly drained firefighters in heavy protective gear.

Batesville Police Department Captain Jimmy McCloud made dozens of trips walking down College Street, passing out bottled water from an ice chest he pulled behind him.

Soon others were bringing bottled water to firefighters who were by then working in relays, some cooling while others were hosing.

Shortly after 11 p.m. water superintendent Ross drove a city backhoe between the kindergarten building and two story building, knocking out the partition walls that joined the two.

“He saved this building,” South Panola Maintenance Supervisor Keith Moore said Monday.
But not quite. Even though the partition had been removed, the fire that rekindled in the office area early Saturday morning threatened the historic brick two story building, scorching bricks over its north entrance.

That’s when Taylor called for the county’s large trackhoe to knock the office area down entirely, allowing firefighters to finally extinguish the persistent blaze.