RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Community members gathered outside Richmond Public Schools’ William Fox Elementary on Saturday, united in grief by the significant damage to the 110-year-old building after a massive fire the night before.
During a press conference Saturday, Richmond Fire Chief Melvin Carter said that his department responded to an alarm that went off at the school prior to the fire, around 9:30 p.m. Friday. Montoya said that crews gained access to the building, investigated for 40 minutes, and then left. He said that no presence of fire was detected at that time.
According to a spokesperson from the City of Richmond’s Department of Fire & Emergency Services, crews then responded to Fox Elementary at 2300 Hanover Avenue at approximately 10:35 p.m. Friday for reports of a building fire. Once on scene, they found heavy smoke and flames from the top floor above the main entrance. The fire was spreading quickly across the top of the school building, according to a release.
At approximately 10:50 p.m., a second alarm was activated. Then, at about 11:09 p.m., parts of the roof reportedly began to collapse, so all crews were evacuated from the interior of the building.
“They then focused on a defensive attack from the exterior,” spokesperson Amy Vu said. “At approximately 11:13 p.m., a third alarm was struck. At approximately 2:44 a.m., the incident was marked under control.”
According to the Department of Fire & Emergency Services, no injuries have been reported.
Whether Fox Elementary is salvageable is information that has not yet been released by RPS or its insurance company. But Superintendent Jason Kamras announced Saturday that classes would be held virtually for the foreseeable future.
“Fox will be closed Monday and Tuesday,” he said. “The team at Fox needs a couple of days to prepare for a shift to virtual learning. We will go 100% virtual for Fox Elementary starting on Wednesday. We want to give everyone time to process the events and make the necessary academic preparations.”
Kamras said that Fox Principal Daniela Jacobs would be meeting with her team Saturday to work on a plan moving forward. There is also a virtual community meeting scheduled for Monday at 7 p.m., during which the superintendent said that more details will be released on what’s next.
“Long-term, we will move into another facility,” he said. “We are exploring a number of options, exploring their state of readiness and how quickly we can move into them.”
But, at least for the time being, this fire has left more than 350 students at Fox Elementary and their teachers without a base.
“I didn’t think it was real. I didn’t think it actually happened,” 3rd grader Olivia Hager said. “But when I saw it, I was so sad because I thought I was going to come back on Monday, see all my friends, see my substitute.”
Wendy Martin and Susan Barstowe each had multiple children who attended William Fox Elementary School over the years. They were brought to tears Saturday by the sight of the fire damage.
“This school has been, for more than 100 years, the reason for this community,” Martin said. “It’s why we all came here, and it pulled us all together. Every friend I cherish in this neighborhood, I met within about 100 feet of this building.”
Martin coached soccer at Fox and co-chaired the soccer program there for 11 years.
“City schools, Richmond City schools, are magic,” she said. “There is a magic to this building and to this community that you literally will not find anywhere else.”
She and Barstowe attributed that to outstanding teachers and administrators, specifically naming art teacher Julie Crowder, Principal Jacobs and longtime teacher Keri Treadway.
“It’s a coming together of families from different areas,” Barstowe said. “The experiences our children had in that building, in the playground of that building, and that we, as parents and adults…it’s the heart of the community. It’s hard to even imagine this community without it.”
With Valentine’s Day coming up on Monday, this is typically the time of year when the Fox community would hang its valentine hearts in front of the building. Crowder is working to keep that tradition alive, despite the damage to the school.
On Monday at 8 a.m., community members have been invited to hang pink or red poster board hearts outside the school, complete with messages detailing a specific memory of Fox, or a message of love and support for the school community.
“I remember the first time I walked through the doors,” Barstowe said. “I couldn’t believe how beautiful the school was, and you do, you stand in that front hallway, and you do, you feel the love emanating from the walls.”
As of Saturday night, RPS had not said what would become of Fox Elementary School. But Barstowe and Martin expressed their concern for future generations of Fox families.
“It may seem weird to be mourning a building when there are so many lives being lost in the world each day, and I think we’re not really mourning the brick and mortar. I think we’re mourning that place, that love, that sense of community, and I think we’re afraid that it will be lost,” Barstowe said, “and that other children and other families won’t be able to experience what we were so lucky to have.”
In a message to the RPS community Saturday afternoon, Kamras stated that hundreds of people had reached out to ask how they could help Fox students and staff.
“For now, the best way to do so is to donate via the RPS Education Foundation website,” he said. “One hundred percent of funds donated will go to support students and teachers in the Fox community. So, right now, thank you for all of those offers.”
Rick Plautz told 8News that most worried about the students and families who rely on Fox Elementary School as a community center.
“That part’s all gone now, for at least right now,” he said. “Thinking about the families that don’t have options to take their kids, to have steady meals for them, and for parents that have to work and they can’t work remotely, what are they going to do for their kids?”
Kamras said that Monday’s virtual community meeting will include information about mental health supports and providing meals for students and families in need.
“It’s the city school that every city school should be,” Barstowe said. “It’s a school we would wish for every child.”
The Richmond Fire Investigations Unit is continuing its work to determine the cause and origin of the fire.