Much of 125-year-old Kapiti school razed

INFERNO: Fire rips through buildings at Paraparaumu School last night. The school is closed indefinitely.
INFERNO: Fire rips through buildings at Paraparaumu School last night. The school is closed indefinitely.

Ministry of Education staff are at Paraparaumu School assessing damage after a suspicious fire last night.

Four classrooms and the school's library containing archival photos and teaching resources were destroyed in the blaze that broke out at about 6.45pm yesterday.

The school had been left with five classrooms, a hall and an administration block.

Head of sector enablement and support at the Ministry, Katrina Casey, said it wanted to ensure children were back learning as soon as possible.

It was looking at whether the school needed temporary classrooms brought in.

“We are meeting with the school this morning to look at their accommodation needs, and what other support they need.  An insurance assessor is also there this morning.

"We will assess whether the remaining classrooms can still be used, or whether there is smoke damage.’’

Ministry staff will also meet with the school’s leaders to see what support was need.

Staff, families and children were being helped to deal with the traumatic event, Casey said.

Fire crews from Otaki to Wellington were called to the fire which was out by 9.30pm. Some crews stayed on site overnight.

One firefighter was taken to hospital with minor burns and heat exhaustion.

A Fire Service spokesman this morning confirmed the cause of the fire was being treated as suspicious because people were seen running from the scene before the fire.

Police and fire safety investigators would return to the scene to investigate today.

School principal Steven Caldwell said last night he had no idea how the fire started, or if it was deliberately lit.

"We'll just have to work our way through it," he said.

"All the archival photos for the school have gone. Teachers have lost 15 to 25 years of resources - just gone."

The school of 160 pupils was due to celebrate its 125th anniversary this year.

The school would be closed today, with no indication of when it would reopen.

"The kids are going to be devastated," Caldwell said.

Caretaker Ross Ambler who worked at the school for 17 years said the four classrooms destroyed in the fire were built in about 1920. The library was built only five years ago.

Fire service assistant area commander Paul Smith said the roof of the classroom block collapsed in the ablaze and praised the dozens of firefighters who battled the blaze.

"The guys did an excellent job," he said.

"Three-quarters of the building was involved in fire and they were able to contain it."

Caldwell said the teachers were shocked today but he was meeting with Ministry of Education representatives and said the school, "will be back, stronger than ever."

"Today is the first day of the rebuild. I have had support from all the local principals in terms of offering space and temporary accommodation for our kids. We will make use of that.

"I really feel for the teachers - some have lost their life's work," Caldwell said.

The roof of the block which went up in flames collapsed in the fire and other classrooms suffered smoke damage. He was not sure yet about the extent of the smoke damage.

Ministry Education representatives are assessing the damage and the school would open as soon as possible, he said. 

"We are still going to have the 125th anniversary in November. We won't have the photos but we will have the anniversary," he said.

Karen Theurl has been teaching new entrance at the school for 14 years and was standing outside the school this morning in tears looking at the charred remains of her classroom.

"My class has gone. The classroom is life. It is not just a building, it has a heart. It is a tragedy for everybody and the kids," Theurl said. 

Another teacher Maria Higgison said everyone in the community loved and knew Theurl. 

"She has welcomed all the kids and families to the school. Kids that are now adults were welcomed by her. It is a beautiful school. We love the kids dearly, we are all going to stick together," Higgison said.

Another teacher Ashley Collins said old pupils came back to see their old teacher and school.

"It is very sad but we will be back better than ever," Collins said.  

Senior fire investigator Peter Fox said the fire was being treated as suspicious until it was proved otherwise.

Kapiti mayor Ross Church attended a blessing at the site this morning and said the loss of irreplaceable photos and memorabilia was tragic.

"A lot of people will feel sad about it - the fact there is its 125 year anniversary is coming up and a lot that history has been lost. That is the terrible part.

"Buildings can be replaced - it is the memorabilia, but people are the main thing," Church said.

"As a community we need to rally around principal Steven Caldwell - he will drive the process and be great for the school. Everyone needs to support him," he said.  

A blessing was held at the site this morning.

The Dominion Post