Investigators sifted through the soot and charred debris on Wednesday to determine what caused the fire consumed the attic and roof of the historic Fernway Elementary School in Shaker Heights. While the district works to formulate a plan for the upcoming school year, educators across Northeast Ohio are collecting donations to help the elementary school teachers rebuild their precious classrooms.
Tuesday’s fire, which broke out around 11 a.m., caused substantial damage to the roof, eventually causing it to collapse. Even after crews spent 12 hours at the scene that day, Fire Chief Patrick Sweeney said firefighters were back at the school first thing Wednesday morning. Two firefighters were hospitalized Tuesday night and into Wednesday morning. One firefighter suffered burns to his hand and another firefighter suffered from heat exhaustion, Chief Sweeney said. Both have since been released from the hospital.
The cause of the fire remains under investigation. Despite the damage to the attic and roof, the first and second floors of the nearly century-old structure remain solid, Chief Sweeney said.
"These buildings and homes [in Shaker Heights] were built about as solid as they come,” Chief Sweeney said. “They can take a lot of damage and still be put back together. We’re optimistic that’s the decision the decision-makers come to.”
While firefighters concentrated their efforts on determining the cause and extinguishing any hot spots, restoration teams were inside the building to remediate the estimated 300,000 gallons of water used to douse the flames, in addition to salvaging any items they could. In the nearby parking lot were dozens of chairs, desks, tables and other personal effects that could be saved.
“There’s a lot of important items in this school. There’s a lot of history here,” Chief Sweeney said.
In the singed debris are the things that teachers used to make their classrooms a special place, whether it be bean bag chairs, personal collections of books, poster boards and even aquariums. It is common for teachers to spend hundreds of dollars on supplies and other items needed to get their classrooms ready for the upcoming school year.
Much of that may have been destroyed in the fire or damaged by water. Recognizing this, the Shaker Heights Teachers’ Association is collecting donations to help teachers bring their classrooms back to life, regardless if those classrooms are at Fernway or at one of the district’s five other elementary schools.
“Seeing the fire, my stomach just drops. You see that go up in flames and it breaks your heart,” said John Morris, a high school teacher and president of the Shaker Heights Teachers’ Association. “It’s such an inherent part of the community and the identity of Fernway residents to lose that beloved school. It’s just like losing a family member.”
Money collected through fundraising efforts will go toward helping teachers purchase items not covered by the school’s insurance, Morris said.
“We know some of those classrooms have been occupied for the better part of 30 years. How do you itemize all of those precious belongings?” Morris said. “Whether its the terrarium or aquarium or these personalized items that were created for the specific classrooms, they’re priceless. But we’ll do what we can to help.
While the money raised will help teachers replenish their classrooms, the money will undoubtedly be used to benefit the students, Morris said.
“We want the kids to have the same experience that they had when they left the building this summer. Wherever we can supplement with the funds donated to the Fernway Fund, we’ll do that,” Morris said.
The teachers’ association isn’t alone. Fellow educator Gala Copez, who works at a different school district, started a fundraising drive on Facebook after seeing pictures and video of the damage at Fernway. Knowing the struggle that it will be for teachers to replace everything on their own, Copez said it’s important for the community to rally around them.
“We are all educators and we all have to have each other’s back. Whatever I can do to make sure our students are learning and growing in the best way that they can, I’ll do it,” Copez said. “I am not in the classroom on a day-to-day basis, but I understand what it takes and it takes the support of everyone, including the community. I see they’re rising up to do this but we’re all educators. We’re all going to take care of our kids.”
Anyone interested in donating to the Shaker Heights Teachers’ Association Fernway Fund may send checks Bill Scanlon, the SHTA treasurer, at 15911 Aldersyde Drive, Shaker Heights, OH 44120. Make checks out to Shaker Heights Teachers’ Association and include ‘Fernway Fund’ in the memo line.
Anyone interested in donating to Copez’s fundraising campaign can do so by clicking this link.