BREAKING NEWS: Fire in Cedar Shoals causes evacuation and early dismissal

On the morning of Nov. 16, smoke flooded the halls of Cedar Shoals, caused by an intentionally set fire on the first floor of the building. Amidst the trouble, students were first evacuated outside of the building, before being taken into either the gym and fine arts building, until being dismissed early for the day.

Sophomore Ryan Xiao was in advisement like most students when the school’s fire alarm went off. He says that his class was not concerned by the alarm until they made contact with the smoke. 

“All of the sudden, the fire alarms went off, and at first I just thought it was a drill. But when we got outside and there was smoke in the hallways, it was clear it was not a drill. As I got outside I saw the fire trucks and realized something big was happening,” Xiao said.

Dr. Melissa Pérez Rhym, Associate Principal of Instruction and Curriculum, was upstairs as the alarms sounded. 

“I immediately began evacuating classrooms and making sure that everybody was mobilized. I checked through all the bathrooms, and once I felt that everyone was out of the building in my zone, I moved into the bus loop to look after the students.” Pérez Rhym said.

As Pérez Rhym made her efforts inside the building, students began pouring outside of the building.

“First thing, I moved to keep the order outside until we knew what was going on. When we got more details, we continued to maintain order and began to come up with a plan to respond to our student’s and building’s needs,” Dr. Utevia Tolbert, Cedar Shoals Associate Principal of Operations, said.

Students stood around outside waiting, some still unaware of the severity of the situation. 

 “I knew something wasn’t right, but everyone just thought it was a joke. (As) the sirens came closer, everyone started to realize what was happening,” senior Nizia Ventura-Ortiz said, who was in the middle of her senior meeting when the alarm sounded.

Athens-Clarke County Fire & Emergency Services first arrived at the scene at 9:24 A.M. and were directed to the origin of the fire, a bathroom on the C100 Hallway. Not long after, ACC Fire & Emergency Services issued a press release detailing the incident. 

“Upon entry into the bathroom, the volume of smoke was so great that visibility was zero,” read the press release. The school’s sprinkler system had already extinguished the origin of the smoke, a toilet paper dispenser that had been lit on fire, melting the paper and plastic container. After Fire & Emergency Services ventilated the smoke, air quality was confirmed safe. 

FIRE STARTER: Remnants of the plastic toilet paper dispenser lay melted on the wall and floor. The toilet paper inside the container was believed to be lit on fire by a student, causing the incident. “It’s really disappointing that another student would do something like this on purpose. I feel like we’re at an age where we know from right to wrong. I’m just glad the fire was caught before it got really bad,” Ventura-Ortiz said.

As the students and staff stood outside, communication became the largest factor in keeping the situation under control. 

“By 9:32, just minutes after we were outside, an email was already sent (to teachers) confirming there was in fact black smoke pouring out of the boy’s bathroom, and they were investigating that it was likely intentionally set. This communication is a marked change from the past, when teachers would get no communication during times of crisis, leaving us wondering what’s going on,” Brent Andrews, English Department, said. “It (communication) gives teachers the tools to comfort people and make the whole situation go more smoothly.”

Looking back on the events, Pérez Rhym thinks communication can be further improved for possible future incidents. 

“I think communication is always something you can go back and improve upon. A way to easily communicate back and forth with all the teachers in real time would have been great, since we were all over the place,” Pérez Rhym said.

With efficient evacuation and communication, everyone remained safe and in control of the situation.

“I think we did an amazing job as far as efficiency goes. Everyone, students, teachers, staff, all were out of the building faster than (a) drill. I think everyone recognized immediately the seriousness of the situation, and communication was carried out the best it could have been with the systems in place,” Pérez Rhym said. 

According to the Athens Banner-Herald, Athens-Clarke police Lt. Shaun Barnett reported a 16-year-old male student was the only one seen going into and leaving the bathroom, and was charged with first-degree arson, causing a disruption of a school and trespassing on property, and has been released to a Youth Detention Center.

“I don’t really understand what could go through your head to intentionally set a fire in the building. It doesn’t benefit anyone, it just has the possibility of hurting others,” Xiao said. 

When asked about the culprit of the fire being a student, Andrews began thinking of a way to prevent situations like this from happening again in the future.

“It’s frustrating but it just reminds me how underdeveloped the teenage brain can be. I’m sure that it wasn’t an attempt to harm people, but it could have led to really bad injuries,” Andrews said. “We really need to focus more on teaching students personal responsibility and to think situations through.”

As far as immediate improvements, Tolbert hopes to bring the student body closer together while building upon systems currently in place. 

“I believe it’s time to have some conversations with students and get our student government association more involved. I feel like students have more impact on each other’s behavior than we do, and we want you to be safe. It’s time to revisit our protocols, procedures and structures to make sure they meet the needs of Cedar Shoals,” Tolbert said.

Aiden Dowling

Senior Aiden Dowling is the Co-Copy Editor and Layout and Design Director for BluePrints Magazine. Dowling won Honorable Mention in SIPA’s 2020 features package portion of their Best Visuals Contest, and he won third place in SIPA’s 2020 review portion of their Best Writing Contest. He plans on attending Georgia Tech for a Computer Science degree. Outside of school, Dowling enjoys being with his friends and volunteering around the Athens community. This year in journalism, he hopes to improve his leadership skills. He enjoys the sense of community, the atmosphere of journalism, and how the staff gets work done when they put their minds to it.

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