Minor fire at VHS rekindles memories of two unsolved blazes

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, October 18, 2000

A Tuesday morning fire at Vicksburg High School brought back memories of the blaze more than two years ago that shut the school down for eight days.

Tuesday’s fire started around 10:30 a.m. in a boys’ bathroom on the second floor of the school. The only damage was a small burn mark on the garbage can.

“I think a student flicked his cigarette in the trash can, and it started smoldering,” VHS Principal Don Taylor said. “There was no smoke in the halls or anything like that.”

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Taylor said a teacher extinguished the fire by dousing it with water.

“We didn’t call the fire department, but we did call the arson investigator just to be safe,” he said. “When you say the word fire’ around here, people pay attention.”

Vicksburg Warren School District Superintendent Donald Oakes said when he heard about the fire he was alarmed. “You think, I don’t want go through that again,'” he said.

Oakes was among the first on the scene after vandalism and arson on Aug. 22, 1998, caused close to $1 million in damages and broke a lot of faculty and student hearts.

Police Chief Mitchell Dent wouldn’t say if the Tuesday fire was being investigated as an arson.

“We are handling it as a serious crime until we can determine what happened,” Dent said. “Any fire at the school has to be taken seriously because of what happened two years ago.”

Taylor said there is a student on videotape who could be responsible for the trash-can fire. “We haven’t identified him yet,” he said. Use of tobacco on school property, including outdoor areas and stadiums, is forbidden for faculty, students and guests. Bathrooms are not videotaped. Some other areas are.

No arrests were ever reported in the 1998 case that included wanton destruction of computers before at least two fires were set. Police Detective Sgt. Doug King said, however, he has not given up hope that those responsible will be charged. “We have not pushed this to the back burner,” said King, the primary investigator on the case.

After the fire, students showed up in droves many of them tearful over what had happened. Banners showing school spirit still intact went up quickly.

King said police are also still investigating a fire that destroyed a ticket booth at Vicksburg Memorial Stadium, almost one year after the fire at the Drummond Street school.

“I met with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in Jackson about both of the fires last week,” King said.

An $11,000 reward is being offered for productive information about the fire that shut down the school the day after summer break ended and cost $929,290 to overcome.

“We have interviewed over 200 people in this case,” King said. “We have not given up.”

King said there is not enough physical evidence to tie anyone to the crime at this time.

“We don’t want to make an arrest that is not going to hold up in court because that doesn’t help anybody,” he said.

Taylor said he is not dwelling on the fire that was more than two years ago. “We regret it, but we are past it,” he said.

An assistant principal when the main office and 70 computer monitors were destroyed and smoke damaged most of the sprawling school, Taylor said the criminals will pay eventually. “Whether they are arrested or not, they will have to answer to a higher power than me or the police,” he said.

King said he and other officers have been dealing with an abundance of rumors for two years.

“We have to have solid evidence, not just suspicion and rumors,” he said.

A report based on tests conducted by the ATF’s Atlanta office, which was released three months after the blaze, said no traces of gasoline or other accelerants were found at the school.

“We are actively following all the leads that we have,” King said.

Oakes said he is relieved the Tuesday morning fire caused no damage.

“We are all grateful it was not like last time,” he said.