Almost 200 young people and staff members at Westminster Community Charter School participated in a practice fire drill Friday. At 3 p.m. Monday, they put those skills to use, fleeing the real thing at the Bailey-Kensington neighborhood school.
All of the estimated 160 children enrolled in two summer programs there, and about 40 staffers, safely evacuated the school, according to principal Ayinde Rudolph.
“The most important thing is that we got all the kids out safely,” Rudolph said, standing outside the 3½-story brick structure where black scorch marks had spread from a first-floor art classroom – the origin of the blaze. The room is situated about 30 feet off Westminster Avenue, not far from the intersection of Bailey Avenue.
Damage to a classroom on the second floor also appeared extensive, but fire officials said the rest of the sprawling school was spared.
The two-alarm fire caused an estimated $275,000 in damage.
It was reported at 3:10 p.m. after staffers noticed sparks coming from the art room. No one was in the room at the time.
Fire Commissioner Garnell W. Whitfield Jr. said that by the time the first fire truck arrived on the scene at 3:14 p.m., the building had been evacuated and all of the children were a safe distance from the structure.
“Engine 34 was the first truck on the scene, and the firefighters aggressively attacked the fire,” Whitfield said, adding that the cause of the blaze remains under investigation.
The programs taking place at the school this summer were a program by the Boys & Girls Club of Buffalo and a teacher- and student-training program by Canisius College. Rudolph said the Boys & Girls Club program, which was set to conclude Friday, is now over because of the blaze, but the college program will continue in another section of the school.
As for the upcoming regular school year – which begins Sept. 5 – Rudolph said the school “should be open, except for the art room and the classroom above it.”
The blaze was declared under control at 3:30 p.m., and by 4:30 p.m. – as firefighters continued venting smoke and clearing water out of the building – the principal marveled at how safely the evacuation occurred. “We did everything we were supposed to do,” he said.
Custodian Jason Velazquez credited the principal with trying to put the blaze out just after the building’s fire alarm went off.
“I held the door open for him, and Dr. Rudolph was spraying a fire extinguisher into the art room. Then we got a second extinguisher, but the fire just kept coming at us,” Velazquez said.
Darcel Blue, a mother of four children who attend summer programs at the school, said she was counting her blessings that Monday, of all days, she decided not to take her youngsters to the programs.
“I normally take my four kids to the school for the summer programs, but today I didn’t. It’s the first time all summer I didn’t and I can’t tell you why I didn’t,” Blue said, referring to the fact that she couldn’t come up with an explanation. “It’s divine intervention. No one, thankfully, was hurt, but I’m glad my children didn’t have to witness that fire.”
Fire investigators said cans of paint and other supplies were in the art room, and they spotted an electrical power cord in the room as well. Whether that played a role in the blaze, Whitfield said, has not yet been determined.
During the blaze, firefighters requested that National Grid turn off electrical power to the school.
School officials noted late Monday that Westminster would still be running its Canisius for Kids field trip schedule from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. today. Children should eat breakfast and bring a bagged lunch as originally planned, they said.