Wild winds blowing fanned a late night fire destroying the nearly $1 million bus fleet and barn for the Wyandotte Public School system.
The blaze, which took place on Wednesday, Jan. 10, annihilated all but four of the district's fleet, and forced the closure of the district for the remainder of the week.
Superintendent Troy Gray said the fire, which destroyed 10 buses, is "devistating" to the northeast Oklhaoma district.
"We're a 160-square-miles [district]," Gray said. "We bus 80 percent of our kids in. That's why we let out for these two days."
Gray said at lest three buses were at the homes of drivers, and a fourth bus was rescued from the blaze.
Wyandotte Public Schools has a present enrollment of 795 students with 450 plus students talking busses to and from school each day.
Gray said a passerby saw the fire and called 911. Wyandotte Fire Chief Jodi Francisco said the dispatch call came in at 10:57 p.m and firefighters were on scene by 10:59 p.m.
“It escalated pretty quick,” Francisco said. “Leon [Crow] was one of the first ones there and he said every bus was involved and it was already through the roof.”
The 10 diesel powered buses were plugged into electric-powered block heaters in a row in the district's old bus barn alongside a newer bus barn used mainly for maintenance and mechanical work.
The old bus barn was completely destroyed, but the new barn remained unscathed by the fire.
“We have two buses per breaker, and we've got a master breaker on that, so the puzzling deal for us is, it should have thrown a breaker," Gray said. "So we're not ruling out foul play but we're not saying that's what it was, but we have investigators who will decide that."
Francisco said there were no injuries reported as a result of the incident. The exact cause of the fire is still under investigation, but he said officials are "learning towards electrical" as the cause.
Members of the Wyandotte Fire Department were assisting with another structure fire in Seneca, Missouri at the time of the call at the school.
“The Tribe guys grabbed a second engine in Wyandotte and were the first ones there, so thank God there's more guys in Wyandotte full time,” Francisco said. “We had 30 guys and probably 20 apparatuses there. It went so fast too because it was wind driven.”
Members of the Quapaw Tribe, Fairland and Seneca District and Peoria's Fire departments all assisted at the bus barn fire.
The bus barn does have surveillance cameras and officials with the Oklahoma State Fire Marshals were on scene investigating and will review the video, according to Gray.
“The first flashes that we saw were at 10:27 p.m.,” Gray said.
Francisco said the bus barn fire full of fueled buses created a domino fire effect.
“The biggest challenge was the buses were in there so tightly parked in there together that we ended up having to go in between each bus and put fire out," Francisco said. "It started with one bus and went both ways.
"I'm very grateful to have the surrounding departments that we have to help us for mutual aid. I'm proud of my guys at Wyandotte. They worked their tails off working a fire in Seneca and coming straight to Wyandotte to work another one.”
Firefighters were finally able to leave the scene around 2 a.m., Thursday, according to Francisco.
“My heart goes to the school, that's nearly a $1 million worth of buses burnt up,” he said. “That's hard to swallow in anybody's budget.”
Wyandotte Public Schools will not be in session on Monday, Jan. 15 in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but will resume classes Tuesday of next week, according to Gray.
Built in emergency days in the district's calendar will cover the days out.
Gray met with insurance adjusters early Thursday and he estimated the loss will surpass at least $945,000.
“We have to deal with insurance and everything, as far as replacing a bus you know they run around $90,000, of course with depreciation we feel like we lost probably around $900,000 on the vehicles and then another $35,000 to $40,000 probably on the building,” Gray said. “ That put us in harms way.”
To enable transport of students back to class and other activities on Tuesday, Jan. 17, district officials plan to use the four remaining buses within the district's fleet, as well as borrowed buses from area school districts.
“We hit the ground running this morning, and in this business of education everybody rallies around each other, it's a fraternity with all us superintendents in neighboring schools,” Gray said. “ We've had multiple people offer buses.
"We are borrowing buses from Miami Public Schools, Seneca Public Schools, Carl Junction, Missouri, and Adair.
"We're going to borrow from them until we kind of catch our breath here. That's short term, but looking forward this is something with today's budget crunch in this state it can put us in harms way.”
Gray said the district's insurance company OSIG [Oklahoma Schools Insurance Group] was immediately on site working with district officials.
“We'll have to look at leasing because even with insurance there's no way it's going to cover the entire fleet, or we may have to go to our patrons. We may to do an emergency bond to help get our fleet back,” he said. “This community is phenomenal, we just got through running a bond issue that went to the cafeteria three years ago, and we were over 90 percent approval.
"It's a very tight community, everyone's been blowing up Facebook and Twitter asking what [they] can do. We had people here last night bringing us water and Gatorade for the firefighters. We're blessed there. We'll bounce back.”
A generous donation seemed to overwhelm Gray with gratitude.
“I just got off the phone with the superintendent of Caney, Kansas, and their board has a used bus there that they use as back up, which is still a good bus. It's a 1997, but they said it's pretty dependable," Gray said. "They just had a special meeting and surplussed it and they're bringing it today and just donating it and giving it to the school."
Gray said the response already received is indicative of the community's support of education.
“It started last night with the fire department, we had multiple firefighters here form different towns. Everybody rallied together, and I've had an outpouring like no one probably deserves,” he said. "It makes you fell good you're not in this alone.
"I got a phone call from [State] Superintendent [Joy] Hofmeister this morning, she called me at 6:15 a.m. and said she was offering anything the state department could do.
"It's been a blessing to have some help and not walk this alone. It reminds you of the good in the world and how important education is.”
Gray said the old bus barn site will be cleared of debris and a new barn rebuilt in the same place.
“The toughest part for the district is we have to get our kids back to school. We can't afford for hem to fall behind, and also we're like a lot of northeast Oklahoma, we have a high poverty rate so we're the only meal for some of those kids, and it's cold here and we're their heat," Gray said. "So, that's the most important thing for me, is getting our kids back in the fold, and our regular routine.
"For me as a superintendent, it comes down to the monetary aspect, how are we going to solve this...It's a strong community, strong school and it's a unique area. We can't change it, we don't have time to sit and worry or feel sorry for ourselves, we just need to move forward. That's what you do, that's we tell our kids.”