Fire levels Vanc. school: 'You just feel an ache in your stomach'

VANCOUVER, Wash. A fire destroyed Crestline Elementary School in Vancouver early Sunday morning. So far, an exact cause has not been determined but investigators planned to search the rubble Monday for clues.

Evergreen Public Schools spokeswoman Carol Fenstermacher says school will be canceled Monday and school officials are working to find an alternative place to send the school's 500 students.

"As you can imagine, trying to find a home for 500 students is going to take a little bit of doing," said Fenstermacher.

The Columbian reports that the Evergreen School District is already crowded and there is no empty facility for the kids to move to temporarily.

Additionally, many of the children were receiving reduced-price breakfasts and lunches at the school.

"You just feel an ache in your stomach. You just want to have our school back," said 9-year-old Crestline student Kendra Short. "You want to go to school."

The district will have counselors on hand at the East Vancouver Community Church, located on SE 7th Street close to Crestline, during normal school hours starting on Monday.

Audrey Christina teaches third grade at Crestline and lives across the street from the school. She said one of her neighbors woke her up during the fire.

"I've been at Crestline 21 years," she said. "I walked out my door and looked at my classroom. I'm that close."

Christina told KATU News that she saw some kids lighting fireworks near the school between 8 and 9 p.m. Saturday night.

"I came outside and saw some kids with fireworks," she said. "And then I came back in and some of my neighbors told me they continued to hear fireworks at 3 o'clock this morning."

The fire started just after 3 a.m., firefighters said. Brenda Cruz said she was walking her dog near the school when she saw the fire.

"I saw some fire on the ground and some flames kind of coming down," Cruz said. "At that point it was small, so I called 911."

Witnesses told KATU News the fire started near the gym.

Fenstermacher said insurance will cover the damage. She told KATU the school's 50 staff members will stay employed.

Fenstermacher says fire officials don't know what started the blaze, but it "totally destroyed" the school.

It could be several days before investigators determine a cause, according to Vancouver Fire spokesman Kevin Stromberg. He said investigators won't be able to enter the building until Monday.

"The fire spread quickly throughout the attic through the entire structure," Stromberg said. "When the school was built it was a requirement to have sprinklers in the structure, but not in the attic."

The attic was made of wood. Stromberg said if the school were being built today, attic sprinklers would be required.

Nearly 40 firefighters responded to the fire at the school. One firefighter was hurt, but his injuries were minor and he was released from the hospital.

The school district will begin to work on a long term plan for the students and staff. Many of the students at the school received subsidized lunches, officials said.

"My first thought was 'what are we going to do with all the children?" Christina said. "It's going to be hard - hard for a lot of them. For a lot of kids, their safe place is at school."

Fourth grader Josh Krzysiak agreed. "School is a second home. We spend more hours and days here than we do practically at home," he said. "Now that my classroom got burned down, it's devastating. I can't even think about it."

Despite the destruction, Crestline teacher Deborah Grams was philosophical about the loss. "Well, the school is gone, but the school is just the physical," Grams said. "What really makes the school is all the teachers and all the kids. So I say, school's gone but we're still here."

If you'd like to make a donation to Evergreen Public Schools to help replace school supplies, you can call 360-604-4088 starting Monday.

Cash donations and school supplies are being accepted at two Vancouver Burgerville locations:

The restaurants are also planning fundraisers to replace school supplies.

KATU's Dan Tilkin, Dan Cassuto and The Associated Press contributed to this story.