New $1.4 million playground falls silent, in wake of Marysville School fire disaster

UPDATED: You’ve seen a firestorm of media coverage about the blaze that leveled nearly half of the Marysville School – but did you know about the beautiful new 3.35-acre park Marysville School Community Park, that opened just weeks before? See exclusive photos of the playground – and the disastrous fire that followed – right here …

Students, faculty and guests assemble under one of the Marysville School’s brand new covered play pavilions during the playground’s dedication.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
The sounds of fun and laughter of young students – floating in the air during the dedication of newly-completed, $1.4 million, 3.35-acre park Marysville School Community Park on October 19 – contained no hint of the anguish and fear the school’s children would experience less than a month later, as flames ripped through their historic schoolhouse next to the park, on November 10.

For years, the students of Marysville K-8 School had only two choices at recess: Play in the blacktopped parking lot, or stay inside the classrooms at the school, located at 7733 SE Raymond Street, a short distance south of Holgate Boulevard.

But, after five years of planning and fundraising – from sources both public and private – the Marysville students and neighborhood children were given in October grassy mounds, climbing rocks, a gravel trail, and sculpted equipment on which to play. The renovation also included new covered play pavilions, security lighting, and basins landscaped with native plants for stormwater treatment. More than 30 new trees and thousands of plants were added to the park.

Children play in one of the many newly opened playground areas.

Teachers bridge their hands, providing a gateway through which a Marysville School class can play on the grassy mounds.

“What’s the big deal about a covered playground?” Marysville Principal Lana Penley asked dignitaries and community leaders at the 2:00 p.m. dedication ceremony in October, at which we were present. “Believe me, where you live in a place where it rains from October until June, having a covered playground is important.” Both students and faculty cheered in agreement.

“What was once a brown-and-black lot has become a first-class playground,” Penley continued. “We have the best playground in the whole city of Portland. We will be proud to say, ‘We go to school at Marysville – you know, the school with the $1.4 million playground’.”

Portland City Commissioner Randy Leonard says he’s happy to support the playground because his mother attended Marysville School.

Commissioner Leonard shares a secret
Portland City Commissioner Randy Leonard beamed with joy as he rose to speak at that dedication ceremony. He told the group that he’d advocated for the project for a personal reason.

“If I share this here with you, can you keep a secret?” Leonard asked the kids. “My mother, born in 1921, went to school here! When they were raising money, I kept hoping that Nancy [Wilgenbusch, former President of Marylhurst, and the project’s committee Chair] wouldn’t ask for more money, because I’d have given her whatever she asked for, inspired by the memory of my late mother.”

Cutting the ribbon dedicating the new playground are Portland City Commissioner Randy Leonard and Marysville Principal Lana Penley.

Before he helped cut the ribbon, Leonard concluded by thanking all involved, and added, “I’ll remember this day for the rest of my life.”

Another day, that would also be long remembered in the neighborhood, came only three weeks later.

Firefighters cut their first “roof trench” to relieve smoke and heat built up in the attic of the school.

When flames erupt from the roof’s peak, firefighters scramble down ladders.

Fire rips through schoolhouse
At 11:40 a.m. on November 10, alarm bells started sounding at Portland Fire & Rescue (PF&R) stations throughout inner SE Portland. Crews from PF&R’s Station 25 Engine and Truck companies, close by on SE 52nd Avenue, jumped into their boots, slid into their fireproof turnouts and headed out. When they arrived minutes later, they saw thick black smoke pouring from the southeast side of the U-shaped, single-story, colonial-style frame structure.

Neighbor Rebecca Bruster wets down her fence while firefighters try to save Marysville School from burning to the ground.

“I could feel the heat from my backyard as I looked at the school,” said Rebecca Bruster, whose property is just east of there. “It was so hot, I thought our wood fence and maybe our garage would catch fire,” she said, hose in hand, wetting down her property.

Portland Police Bureau officers swiftly helped crying kids and staff members escape the building as it quickly filled with smoke. While it was traumatic, the hasty exit was orderly – the school had conducted an elaborate fire drill only the previous week, so everyone knew what to do and where to go.

“All 460 students and 17 teachers have been accounted for, and have been evacuated to Holgate Public Library,” PF&R spokesperson Kim Kosmas told us at the scene. “Two adults were transported for minor smoke inhalation. No children were injured.”

Within minutes, a large section of the roof in the southeast corner of the building collapses.

Aggressive firefighting prevents total loss
The fire spread rapidly through the structure and in the attic spaces, revealed PF&R spokesman Lt. Allen Oswalt, speaking to us afterward. “Firefighters used very aggressive tactics, including making ‘trench cuts’ – holes cut in the roof, spanning the entire attic space. These openings direct fire and smoke out of the attic into the air, instead of allowing them to spread through the entire structure.”

Two alarms were sounded, and as the fire grew into an inferno, it became a three-alarm blaze, bringing more than 100 firefighters to the scene. Clackamas County Fire District #1 and the Gresham Fire Department provided companies in “mutual aid”, to respond to calls from Portland stations left vacant by the crews at the scene of the fire.

Water poured directly down into the fire from the turret on the top of Truck 25’s extended ladder doesn’t even slow the flames.

Checking his records, Oswalt said the school’s last fire inspection was in May 2008. “At the time 14 violations were noted by the inspector, none of them major violations. The re-inspection was in December, 2008, at which time, all of the violations had been abated.”

Before the fire was completely out, PF&R investigators had arrived to begin interviewing staff, and anyone who was in the part of the building they believe was the area of origin. “The structure is severely unstable, and and heavy equipment is removing unstable portions of the building to allow investigators to access the area where they believe the fire began,” reported Oswalt.

Late Friday night, fire bureau spokesman Lt. Damon Simmons said investigators interviewed approximately 100 witnesses and conducted two full days of digging, searching for the fire cause and origin. “Fires of this magnitude are labor intensive and require extensive information gathering. While tremendous progress has been made, we are unable to provide a fire cause at this time. The fire remains under investigation.”

Simmons said the preliminary damage estimates set the loss of the structure at $2,750,000 and content damage loss at $1,500,000. Anyone with information that they feel would be of value to investigators is urged to call (503) 823-3791.

The fire burns fiercely along the east side of the school; neighbors watch from a yard.

Dealing with the aftermath
“Our focus is making sure everyone is safely out of the building, and we’ve done that,” said Portland Public Schools (PPS) spokesman Matthew Shelby at the scene. “This is one of our older schools; it’s a wood frame structure. That makes it particularly susceptible to fires like this.”

“There’s a lot of history in this building,” said Shelby, when he again spoke with us later. “It’s really sad, especially with the wonderful playground we just dedicated here. From what I can tell, that’s pretty much undamaged. But, as of today, we don’t have custody of the building. We can’t even begin to speculate on amount of damage to the building. I’m not an expert, but I’d say it’s a third to half of the building.”

School bus drivers and PPS representatives are on hand to help Marysville School students learn bus safety tips before they start school at Rose City Park, across town, on November 14 in the Fred Meyer parking lot on SE 82nd Ave. of Roses at SE Foster Road.

Students bussed across town
Asked why the school system selected the shuttered building in Rose City Park, located five miles north from Marysville, to which to move the Marysville student body and staff, Shelby responded, “The Kellogg School building was considered; from a geographic perspective, it makes more sense. But, since it was closed in 2007, the building has been used for storing surplus furniture. The rooms are packed with all kinds of desks and cabinets. We were able to get Rose City Park open quickly. It’s being stocked as a temporary solution until Winter Break. We haven’t made any long- term plans beyond that; we don’t have a good sense yet of how long we’ll need an alternative site.”

Shelby added that the PPS would be reimbursed by the state for getting Rose City Park open. “We don’t know if we’d also be able to get reimbursed later on for going ahead and getting Kellogg up-to-date and running. After putting work into the Rose City Park building, we’d wonder whether it’s worth it to uproot the kids again, to move them to the Kellogg School building. It is being considered.”

For the end of this week, Shelby said, the Wattles Boys and Girls Club in Lents opened their doors to students. “Riding the bus will be a new thing for most of the students. “There, and over the weekend, we’ll have busses there so kids can comfortable with riding the bus, and learn safety procedures.”

Students, faculty showered with donations
Faculty and staff members are being encouraged to list items they lost in the fire, Shelby added. “We’re hearing there is quite a bit we may be able to salvage from the building.”

To help students – who dropped everything when the fire alarm sounded, and ran for their lives – Shelby said that Nike has stepped up to provide new backpacks and coats for all the students. “Powell’s Books donated 1,500 new books to their library. And, an independent landscaper came by, to spruce up the front of Rose City Park School.”

If you want to contribute, all donations are being channeled to Schoolhouse Supplies for distribution – they’re also handling cash donations as well.

© 2009 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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