School fire took athletic history with it
IT'S all just debris and ashes now, a sight that will add 10 pounds to your heart. It's all gone, just gone, blackened, charred, collapsed. Gone. Just debris and ashes, surrounded by orange fence and yellow tape.
And around the edges and up in the big tree, somehow, there is already a little green. Rebirth.
A security guard keeps watch. Silently. Solemnly.
He watches the ashes as the green stuff dances in a cool Manoa breeze.
THE FIRE STARTED at about 3:40 in the afternoon, Tuesday, June 13. UH Lab School -- University High -- athletic director Jim Bukes was sitting in his office when the alarm went off.
It must be a test, he thought. But then the alarm kept going off, about 30 seconds or so, and 30 seconds is an eternity, in fire-drill time. At last, Bukes reached for the phone and called the vice principal.
"Are you testing the bells? The alarm is going off."
"No, do you see or smell smoke?"
"No, I don't smell smoke, but I'll go check the building."
The building, which housed the Lab School's athletic department, PE department, chorale, orchestra, weight room, drama room and elementary gym, was almost 100 yards long. Bukes started down the long hallway. It was one of the first days of summer school, maybe a kid had pulled the alarm. He walked. No smoke.
Then, 20, 30 feet from the end of the building, there it was. He could smell it. See it. This was bad. Bukes' pulse raced. He turned, and he ran.
He burst back into his office, grabbed the cordless phone. Turned around and started running again, dialing. The UH Lab School was on fire. He had to call the office again.
Nothing. He was running toward the flames, but out of range. He turned around and ran for his office again, he had to get close enough to his phone's home base. At last, the signal worked. He made the call. He'd seen the smoke. He'd smelled it. It was real.
He turned around and ran again, toward the smoke. Took a rubbish can to fill with water to make a run at the flames. By the time he got out of the bathroom it was too scary to go down that hall. It was too late. The smoke was too thick. The fire already too big. They had to get everyone out.
By now he was yelling, the vice principal too, evacuating the building. Fire. Smoke. Evacuate.
As he tells the story, Bukes stops, almost coughs. For just a second he breathes roughly. Like the smoke is in his lungs again.
Days later a UH worker they had yelled at would tell them he had never heard the bells.
A devastating fire earlier this month wiped out the UH Lab School's athletic equipment and files and some ILH records.
IT WAS GREEDY, this fire. It was moving fast. They evacuated the other building, because the flames might jump the big tree. Cars had to be moved, right now.
Bukes made one more run into his building. The smoke was farther up the hallway, closer, moving steadily. "It was so thick we couldn't get anywhere near it," Bukes says.
He ducked back into his office, tried to grab his laptop off the desk, but couldn't. It was bolted down.
He'd been told to just grab the personal things and get out. He did. His briefcase. A few files. He left his office for the last time.
Out into the fresh air.
You've seen the scene, on television and in pictures on these pages. The firemen. The flames. The onlookers. Water, shooting high into the sky.
It was voracious, this fire. The gym had just been refinished. You can imagine the explosion, when new varnish met flame.
The new weight room. Well, OK, it wasn't a new weight room. A new Universal station. The training room's new ice machine. All of Pac-Five's wrestling/judo mats, one so new it hadn't even been opened. Uniforms. Equipment. "Everything you could think of that would be needed by an athletic department," Bukes says. Gone.
The drama department. The orchestra. The chorus room.
Gone. Gone. Gone.
Now ashes and debris.
Just memories surrounded by orange plastic fence.
"But ... there were no lives lost," Bukes says. "And I thank God nobody had been hurt."
The rest can be replaced.
"It went from one end of the building to my end of the building in less than 20 minutes. It burnt down in less than 2 hours. It was incredible to watch. It was ...
"It was tough," Bukes says.
Now the smoke is in his eyes.
JIM BUKES LOVED his office. It was comfortable there, even when it was stiflingly hot, which it often was. In the last 45 years, University's three athletic directors had each shared that same office, and he loved that about it, too.
You should have seen it. Everything was on the wall. Old uniforms -- not of great players, but just to show what teams wore in the '60s, '70s, '80s and on. Just because old athletic directors love being surrounded by that kind of stuff.
Trophies. Plaques. All the school records. A lot of Clay Benham's old Interscholastic League of Honolulu files and records, too. It was like a museum exhibit that will never be seen again.
"It was a comfort zone for me," Bukes says. "And it was a real comfortable place for the kids. It was a place for them to come and hang out and feel casual and comfortable at school."
Bukes has been at the UH Lab School for 20 years. Every senior picture every student ever gave him was in that room.
"I wish that I had a picture of the inside of the office," he says.
"All I have now are the memories," he says.
ALMOST AS SOON as those alarm bells rang the response has been overwhelming. First there were the firemen, of course. But then, in the wake of the devastation, the outpouring of support. The community, the alumni. Other ILH schools have been both generous and quick.
An account has been set up by the UH Foundation, the UH Laboratory School Fire Recovery Fund. You can go to www.uhf.hawaii.edu or call 956-8849 or send donations to the UH Foundation, P.O. Box 11270, Honolulu, 96828.
There is already a big fundraiser concert set for August, Bukes says, headlined by several local bands. There will be emotion, and memories. "It should be a really nice night."
At the edges of the ashes, there is green the fire couldn't kill.
"I have to rebuild a program," Bukes says. "As well as the chorus department and the drama department, we all have to rebuild. And we'll do that."
Punahou School offered him its press box as an emergency office. It's air-conditioned and has cable TV and a view. He thought about it, don't think he didn't. Air-conditioning?
But in the end, no.
There was a reason he loved that old office.
"My place is on campus," he says.