“Buildings can be rebuilt, people can’t be replaced”

A look behind the accidental fire that shocked South

Mia Carr and Gaby Yap

Smoke was all that Brian Render, Glenview Fire Department Lieutenant, could see as he walked into  an evacuated South. As Render rushed closer to the source of the fire, he realized it was more intense than he initially thought, with a wall of smoke reaching from the ceiling to the floor. Despite the rattling experience the fire provoked for students and staff, Render kept a calm demeanor. His main focus: putting out  a fire broken out in the Woods’ Room. 

“You don’t hear a lot [about] school fires,” Render said. “We knew we had to get the hose into the building, find the fire, [and put it out]. Doing it calmly [is] part of the business that we’re in.”

On Thursday, May 4, at approximately 3:05 p.m., a fire broke out in the Woods’ Room. Students and staff were required to evacuate the building and school was canceled the following day. While there were no casualties, the administration will repair damage to the building over the summer, Principal Dr. Barbara Georges said. Additionally, 1,400 students were able to enter South to collect whatever they had left behind the day after the fire, Georges added. 

The fire began as a regular activity in the Woods’ classroom, sophomore TJ Newell said. Newell had been using a technique in which a blowtorch is used to lightly char a piece of wood, creating a distressed effect. However, it quickly got out of hand. Newell became distracted and moved too close to the wood, and it quickly set ablaze, he explained. The fire quickly spread, and despite Newell and his peers’ attempts to put it out, it was too late and it transformed into a chemical fire, Newell explained. Once they realized they could not stop the fire, the Woods’ classroom had only one option: pull the fire alarm.

“[To my knowledge], there were no sprinklers or fire extinguishers in the woodshop,” Newell said. “By [the time the fire spread] there [was] nothing else we could do, so we pulled the fire alarm.”

Once Newell grasped his situation, he was completely shocked, as he had not witnessed anything like this before.

“As the fire was going on, I was super scared [and] nervous,” Newell said. “It was baffling. I was shocked.”

The commotion the fire caused was not confined to the Woods’ Room. Junior Joshua Zingerman was in the middle of his afternoon AP Statistics exam when the alarm sounded. Zingerman left the room, not thinking much of the alarm. He and the others outside started to realize that their incomplete portion of the exam would not count.

“[When] I heard [the] alarm I thought we were just going to walk outside and walk back in after they [realized it was] a false alarm,” Zingerman said. “After two minutes of being outside, [everyone] started to realize that it was a real fire. It was so disheartening because we all knew that [part of the exam] was gonna be voided.”

Georges applauded students for their responses to the emergency situation. 

Students’ ability to follow directions once the alarms went off made it possible to have the safest outcome possible, Georges explained.

“I saw the best [of] our school,” Georges said. “I saw people being patient with peers. I saw students offering rides to [acquaintances]. I saw a lot of patience.  I saw a lot of care for [others]. If students [had] responded differently, [there] could have been a different outcome.”

The Friday following the fire, students were able to enter into the building and pick up their belongings in an orderly fashion, Ron Bean, Assistant Principal and Dean, explained. Teachers escorted students to the classrooms where they had left their belongings, and once they retrieved their things they were able to leave the building, he added.

The fire was not the only commotion at the school on May 4. At around 10:00 p.m., a water main in the Autos’ Courtyard broke as a result of the fire response, Georges said. Because the pressure drew water from the fire hydrants and all of its supply pipes to put out the flames, it strained the water main, Georges said. The water main has already been replaced and only needed to have  the concrete paved over it replaced, Georges added.

Reflecting on the incident, Newell did not feel as stressed out as he did in the moment. Although the fire was not a desired outcome, it was nobody’s fault, he added.

“Looking back on [the fire] I feel much better [than I did in the moment], especially after discussing with Mr. Silica because it was 100 [percent] an accident,” Newell said. “No one [is] at fault, no one is in trouble.”

Additionally, Render felt fortunate that no one was hurt in the fire. While the damages are not ideal, Render acknowledged how fortunate  it is that there were no people injured.

“Nobody got hurt, which is great,” Render said. “At the end of the day, schools, rooms, buildings, [and] bathrooms can be rebuilt, people can’t be replaced.”