RICHARD WALKER / RWALKER@STARBULLETIN.COM
A crowd gathered yesterday at the University Laboratory School where a news conference was being held to announce that last Tuesday's fire, which destroyed a section of the Manoa school, was intentionally set.
UH Lab School blaze ruled arson
Investigators find evidence that the fire started in the back of the building
Fire and police officials say the University Laboratory School fire was intentionally set, deepening the shock and sadness of students, alumni and faculty.
"It's a bad story getting worse, like Chapter 2," said Lanning Lee, vice president of the University Laboratory School Alumni Association.
Honolulu police opened an investigation yesterday into last Tuesday's fire at the Manoa charter school after firefighters determined the blaze was intentionally set.
The fire, reported just before 4 p.m., destroyed a 1930s-era building and produced a trail of black smoke visible throughout Manoa and surrounding areas. Initial damage estimates for the building and its contents are at $6.5 million, but officials say that number could go up.
Police declined to say if they had a suspect but said any suspect could be prosecuted under a law signed by Gov. Linda Lingle this month.
The new law says anyone charged for an arson fire could face up to 15 years in prison and/or a $50,000 fine. The law, prompted by last year's string of brush fires on the Leeward Coast, also would require offenders to perform community service. When a minor is convicted of sparking the blaze, parents will be held liable for all costs associated with putting out the fire.
Honolulu Fire Department spokesman Capt. Kenison Tejada said investigators concluded the fire was deliberately set after interviewing several witnesses, studying burn patterns and other evidence. Speaking to media in front of charred rubble, he would not give more details, saying only that the fire started at the back of the school and that electrical failures, candles and other flammables were ruled out.
"I can't say how it was set," Tejada said, citing the ongoing investigation.
It took fire officials about half a day longer than expected to determine that the fire was intentional because of the extent of the damage. Officials also waited for a mainland investigator hired by the school's insurance company to fly to Hawaii.
Honolulu police Capt. Frank Fujii said solving the case would depend on "people's willingness to come forward." He urged those who might be reluctant to speak out to think not only about the school, but mostly on how its loss affects students.
"It's going to affect students ... for a generation," Fujii said. "When we ask for help, it's not just to solve a property crime. Let's think about the kids."
The old wooden building housed the school's athletic, music and drama departments, as well as offices of the University of Hawaii's College of Education.
For the school's close-knit community, the news that arson was to blame added to the disappointment and sadness that overwhelmed them after the blaze destroyed hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment and priceless memorabilia at a building at the Lab School.
RICHARD WALKER / RWALKER@STARBULLETIN.COM
Police Capt. Frank Fujii said yesterday at the University Laboratory School that the key to solving last Tuesday's intentionally set fire would be "people's willingness to come forward."
"I can't believe someone would do that. That's really sick," said Kami Seminara, who graduated from the UH Lab School last month. "I thought it was a freak accident. I'm very disappointed."
Alumni have been sending frequent e-mails to each other on how they can help the school rebuild and replace items.
Seminara, who is among 52 students who recently graduated from the school, said each student is attempting to donate $100.
Lee said their fifth annual alumni dinner scheduled for July 1 at the multipurpose building was turned into a full-fledged fundraiser dinner. All proceeds will go toward getting the school ready for fall, Lee said.
In addition to alumni fundraising, the nonprofit University of Hawaii Foundation has received $21,245 in donations for its Lab School recovery fund as of Sunday.
State Sen. Norman Sakamoto (D, Salt Lake-Foster Village), a 1965 graduate, said his class of close to 90 students is trying to pool donations to help replace musical instruments.
"It's kind of frustrating that someone would deliberately do it," Sakamoto said.
Circuit Court Judge Steve Alm, who attended UH Lab School from preschool to his senior year, said, "It's a sad development.
"You never think something like this was going to happen," said Alm, a 1971 graduate and member of the school's board.
UH College of Education Dean Randy Hitz said knowing that the fire was intentionally set was discouraging.
"It's always sad to hear when a fire like this was intentionally set," Hitz said, noting staff continues to look for office space and classrooms for displaced teachers and students. "This news ... was discouraging but I'm sure people will rally."
School officials should complete an inventory of all items destroyed by the fire in a few days, said Hitz, who estimated the faculty offices contained numerous computers with at least $4 million worth of research for grant projects.
In addition, school music director Ira Wong has said it would cost up to $80,000 to replace musical equipment and more than 83 school-owned instruments that included 58 violins, 12 violas, 10 cellos, three string basses and one spinet piano.
James Bukes, the school's athletic director, said, "I'm just trying to deal with the overwhelming job of starting over. Whether it was an accident or intentional, we have to rebuild the whole building and the contents in it."
"The building has burned down. I can't control what happened. I can only control what's ahead of me. We have a large task ahead of us," Bukes said.