By WARREN DILLAWAY - firstname.lastname@example.org
Smoke could be seen for miles late Saturday afternoon as a former elementary school burned along West Avenue drawing a crowd of curious people.
When firefighters arrived on the scene they found smoke and fire pouring from the former school and people inside the building, said Ashtabula Fire Chief Ron Pristera.
“There were bystanders in the building that we had to get out of the building. They were not cooperative,” he said.
Pristera said the situation was too dangerous to go inside the building to search and the bystanders had no specific knowledge of people who might be in the building.
“I hope to God there are no bodies in there,” he said.
Pristera said there was no way to go into the building and it will be difficult to search the area today because of the damage to the structure and the large amounts of water that accumulated in the basement of the building.
Dozens of people watched the fire along West Avenue and West 47th Street. Cars pulled on to a field at the site of the former West Junior High School and snapped pictures with cell phones.
Windermere school was built in 1908 and served as an elementary school for many years, according to a website detailing old schools in Ashtabula County and former educators in the district. A second Windermere school was later built on Sanborn Road and is used as an educational resource center to this day.
Educators in the district said the West Avenue building had not been used as a school for decades and were not aware when it was last used as a school.
Pristera said the building was owned by Spencer Wold for many years, but recently went through a foreclosure process. He said nobody bid on the building.
“There is a question of who owns the building,” he said.
Pristera said firefighters used two hydrants on West Avenue and two hydrants on West 47th Street or adjacent side streets. “We didn’t have any trouble with water,” he said.
The first 10 to 15 minutes were difficult as firefighters called for help from Saybrook Township, Ashtabula Township and Geneva, Pristera said.
Bystanders helped unroll hose for firefighters along West 47th Street. Pristera said it is nice to have help, but urges people to realize that water pressure can create a dangerous situation when it is activated.
Pristera said he has no idea what started the fire and indicated it may be very difficult to find out because of the damage to the structure. “It’s going to be a big puzzle,” he said.
Pristera said he planned to have a crew on site all night. “We will baby-sit it all night,” he said.
The roof and several walls fell during the fire, but much of the structure was still standing late Saturday night. “It appears everything that was unstable is down. We actually tried to knock some things down and we were unsuccessful,” he said.
Pristera said rumors ran rampant about what may have caused the fire. He said people reported two people leaving the building, four people leaving the building, children playing in the building and a meth lab in the building just to name a few.
The building will be evaluated today and a decision will be made as to what should be done with the remaining rubble, Pristera said.
Firefighters cleared West Avenue at 9:20 p.m., but blocked West 47th Street to traffic from West Avenue as firefighters kept an eye on the structure.
Pristera said the most dangerous part of the fire was people stopping to take pictures and video along West Avenue.