Investigators: Lightning may have sparked school fire


RICHMOND, R.I. (WPRI) — Investigators looking into a fire that destroyed a school in rural Rhode Island over the weekend say a lightning strike may be to blame.

At least 22 departments worked for hours to put out the fire at the Meadowbrook Waldorf School in Richmond Sunday morning. Investigators said the fire was likely burning for a good amount of time before it was detected.

Michael Sweeney, chief of fire investigations, told Eyewitness News lightning is “a possibility that the fire marshal’s office is looking at.”

Chief Meteorologist Tony Petrarca said radar images showed a concentration of lightning in that area Saturday night.

One of the challenges for the hundreds of firefighters battling the blaze was getting water to the scene, with no hydrants close by. All day long, tankers were driving up and down Route 138 between fill sites and the fire scene.

“It was a phenomenal effort and everyone was working so hard,” Beth Riungu, a parent of two students at the school, said Monday.

According to fire officials, the flames spread in a space between the ceiling and the roof, above the smoke detectors and sprinkler system. Tabitha Jorgenson, the president of the school’s board of trustees, said the building was up to code.

“We did all the things that were recommended of us to do,” she said. “Will we do it differently? We may when we hear what’s happened, but you know we can’t know that right now.”

The building was deemed a total loss and has already been torn down. But amid the massive pile of debris, crews were able to uncover some items that are helping the school community stay positive, including student projects and pictures.

“It means the world because there are things that just can’t be replaced, so it’s lovely to see those things,” Riungu said. “We’ll be coming together in many ways, shapes and forms in the coming weeks.”

“Our heart and soul is in that building,” Jorgenson added. “But our community is out here.”

When the building was built in 2007, letters from students were buried in a foundation stone box. They hope to recover those as well.

School administrator Jennifer Farrelly said classes will still start the Tuesday after Labor Day as planned, just in another location.

“Meadowbrook’s never been about the building. It’s always been about the community, so just stay positive,” Farrelly said, adding that the school plans to rebuild on the very same site. 

School leaders met Monday morning to figure out where classes will be held. They said they hope to find somewhere within the busing district.

The school plans to soon have a fundraising page up on its website.

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