Lab School's new headaches go beyond $6.5M in fire losses
POLICE AND FIRE officials say the fire that destroyed a 20,000-plus-square-foot building at the University Laboratory School Tuesday started in the rear of the theater and caused about $6.5 million in damage.
"The cause is still under investigation, but at this moment there are no signs of foul play," said Honolulu police Detective Gary Lahens,* who expected the investigation to be completed this afternoon.
While police and fire officials spent yesterday dousing hot spots and sifting through the rubble for clues, university officials discussed their plans for the kindergarten-through-12th-grade school's future.
"This has been a huge loss for us. Not only are we not swimming in money, we're not exactly swimming in space, either," said Randy Hitz, dean of the University of Hawaii's College of Education, who noted that fundraising from alumni and conversion into a charter school saved the 75-year-old school from closure five years ago.
UH's risk management director, Kari Wilhelm, said the university property is covered by the state's insurance plan, and she expects Lexington Insurance to cover the cost of the damage to the building that served about 30 part- and full-time faculty and 420 students with its four classrooms, theater and multipurpose room.
Hitz said since the building contained computers, musical instruments, all of the Hawaii High School Athletic Association soccer tournament information and more than $4 million worth of research for grant projects, he believed the preliminary damage estimate was low.
"After the university finishes taking inventory of everything that was lost, our next step is to relocate classes and faculty given the existing space and facilities," said Donald Young, director of the UH Curriculum Research and Development Group.
Young added that the summer theater class and driver's education course that originally met in the building were relocated to High School Building 3 yesterday.
"We plan to build another building in place of it, but it will take time, five years at best," Hitz said. "What we're able to do is largely dependent on funding from the UH system and the state Legislature."
Hitz said officials had discussed replacing the 67-year-old wooden structure for years.
He said the university also plans to renovate and upgrade other buildings, especially two wooden structures that were threatened by Tuesday's fire and next to the building that was destroyed.
University officials said the school had passed its most recent fire inspection in November.
"They had the necessary fire protection devices," said acting Battalion Chief Bill Melemai, of the Fire Prevention Bureau. "They performed their fire evacuation drills as required; they made every effort to identify their exits. The school met all of the requirements."
The University Laboratory building met the prevailing code at the time it was built, in 1939, and retrofitting to meet changing building codes is not required. However, it lacked the fire breaks that are part of modern-day construction, allowing the blaze to punch through the building.
"Once the fire reaches the ceiling -- building codes at the time did not require fire stops. You have just one huge open attic for that fire to spread," said Richard Soo, school fire inspection program consultant for the Department of Education. "The bottom line is, they met the building code when they were built, and unless they do super-major renovations, the building code would not require a retrofit."
The building that burned is one of just a few old, wooden buildings still left on public school campuses on Oahu, Soo said.
Most schools are now constructed with hollow tile, although there are still some aged buildings on the neighbor islands. In May 2005 on Kauai, an early-morning fire destroyed a historic Kalaheo Elementary School building that housed administrative offices and six classrooms.
Soo noted that timing has a lot to do with whether an entire building goes up in flames.
"The thing that totally engulfs buildings is not the inherent lack of something in the construction of the building," Soo said. "It's the time of the fire and the lack of inhabitants in the building -- late at night or when no one is around."
Fire officials said it is not clear how long Tuesday's fire burned before being discovered.
James Bukes, the lab school's athletic director, said yesterday that when a fire alarm went off at about 3:40 p.m., he thought a ball might have accidentally struck the alarm, triggering it, or a student had pulled a prank.
As Bukes walked down a hallway, he saw smoke at one end of the building.
He ran back to his office and called Vice Principal Keoni Jeremiah to call 911. Filling a small wastebasket with some water, he returned to the site, where he saw smoke. But by then the smoke was too thick, he said.
Moments later an enormous fire raged, destroying everything in its path.
"In hindsight it's good that the school wasn't occupied," Soo said. "But if somebody witnessed it, it could have been put out at an early stage. Usually you catch fires in the early stages."