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Fire at CCS — two days before first day of school

karenb@lakevillejournal.com

CORNWALL — This was not a drill. And luckily, the school was not full of students to evacuate.

On Saturday morning, Aug. 27, less than 48 hours before the first day of the new school year, a fire broke out at Cornwall Consolidated School (CCS).

Cornwall's volunteer firefighters and EMTs were dispatched to the school, at the intersection of Cream Hill Road and Route 128, at about 9:25 a.m. following a report of smoke in the building. They were soon joined by firefighters from Goshen and Falls Village, dispatched as mutual aid.

About an hour later, Fire Marshal Stan MacMillan was already able to determine what had caused the blaze. It had started in the compressor of a refrigerator in the school basement. A carpet had ignited, but flames and most of the smoke were confined to a closed storage area.

The damage apears to be minimal and is not expected to impact the Aug. 29 school opening.

Emergency workers were already on edge that morning, having spent the previous day responding to the governor?s declaration of a state of emergency and preparing for the expected arrival of Hurricane Irene on Sunday.

Many town residents were selling their wares and shopping early at the farm market, even as rain threatened.

At CCS, many teachers had planned to spend part of the day getting their classrooms ready. The Region One School District's superintendent's office had already sent out a mass notification that the start of school might be delayed.

Computer technology teacher Vicki Nelson arrived at about 8:30 a.m. on Saturday. Library teaching assistant Carla Whiteside arrived at about 9 a.m. The two set to work in the adjoining library and computer lab at the west end of the building.

Not long after, custodian Tom Brown stuck his key in the lock of a door at the other end of the school. The fire alarm sounded immediately.

"I knew that door wasn't keyed into the alarm system," he later told The Lakeville Journal, explaining that it opens into an area where snow shovels and other equipment are kept. "When I realized it was the fire alarm, I knew the timing was just a coincidence, and I began searching the school."

Brown did not smell smoke. Neither did Nelson and Whiteside, who were not far from the fire that was growing a floor below them.

"I didn't see or smell smoke even in that area of the basement, until I opened that door and found the room filled," Brown said.

The room is sort of a multi-purpose utility space. It includes a copier, the school's computer server and the older model refrigerator, which was left plugged in over the summer.

School board Chairman Becky Hurlburt was manning a table at the farm market on Saturday and anxiously awaiting updates. She said she was relieved, having heard the refrigerator part of the story, and had feared the fire was in the main kitchen. A considerable amount of money was spent this summer on a new floor for the adjoining Gathering Room.

Just before noon, a dispatch call went out for a work detail. More fire volunteers were needed to quickly put fire trucks and equipment back in order to comply with disaster preparedness.