BUENA PARK : School Fire Is Believed to Be Arson

Ruling out electrical failure or other accidental causes, investigators said Tuesday that they now believe someone started a fire that burned through six classrooms and destroyed a library at an elementary school.

Fire officials, treating the Monday afternoon blaze at the Arthur F. Corey Elementary School as an arson, went so far Tuesday as to bring one pupil to the principal's office for about 15 minutes of questioning.

But the boy, who had been seen lingering around the site of the fire, was released in tears back to his class after "he convinced us that he had nothing to do with it," said Capt. Dave Myers of the Buena Park Fire Department.

"We eliminated all the accidental causes," said City Fire Marshal Don Tully, "and when you do that, that generally means arson. . . . We have our feelers out and we're hoping something will come up--kids talking to kids, a teacher overhearing something. Right now, though, we're at a dead end."

The fire broke out just after 1 p.m. Monday, causing damage to a building at the north end of the school and forcing the evacuation of the entire school.

While fire officials estimated damage at between $120,000 and $200,000, school district officials said they believe that structural losses and damage to school equipment and supplies could total more than $350,000.

The principal, Dick Martin, suffered moderate burns when he raced into the burning building to make sure no students were trapped inside. A firefighter was treated at the scene for heat exhaustion. But there were no major injuries and school officials said the evacuation went smoothly.

"It was just like a regular fire drill," Martin said Tuesday, bandages covering his burned hands as he worked at cleaning the school.

"Everyone worked well together, and no one really panicked."

Students went back to work almost as normal on Tuesday, those from the six burned classrooms using makeshift quarters elsewhere at the school.

But the fire remained a constant distraction as investigators spent much of Tuesday morning looking for clues in the storage room where they believe the blaze started. Meanwhile, dozens of parents, teachers and the students themselves sifted through the charred classrooms in search of useable books, papers and school equipment.

The results weren't encouraging.

In the library, hit hardest, virtually all 3,000 volumes were ruined, said librarian Helga Wilson, who was called "a heroine" by her school colleagues for first detecting the blaze and racing to alert the rest of the school.

"The library is a total loss," District Supt. Jack Townsend said.

Townsend said he hopes repairs to the damaged areas--six classrooms, the library and a teachers' lounge--may be completed by September for the start of the new school year. Meanwhile, school officials plan to set up mobile classrooms in the parking lot at a cost of $4,000 a month, to be covered by insurance.

Teachers and school officials talked with pupils Tuesday about the importance of fire safety and encouraged the children to discuss any lingering concerns or fears.

"It's been really traumatic for a lot of them. Even the earthquakes we've had haven't been this destructive. But the kids seem to be handling it all very well and are eager to talk about what happened," district nurse Jan Ries said.

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