Blaze at Andrews Field ruins NHS band equipment
Norwalk Hour Report
Friday, August 17, 2007
A Thursday morning fire destroyed an Andrews Field storage building and an estimated $500,000 worth of instruments and equipment the Norwalk High School Marching Bears had stored inside, officials said.
Fire Marshal Glenn Iannoccone said the cause of the fire is under investigation. Officials are considering arson among other possible reasons behind the blaze, he said.
"Nothing is off the table," Iannoccone said.
The fire was not the first of problems officials have had with the storage building, dubbed "the green house" by band members and staff.
In September 2000, the building's kitchen area and concession stand was gutted by fire and never replaced.
Iannoccone said he did not remember whether that fire was determined to be arson.
Two years ago, someone broke into the shed and threw members' tubas into a swamp, said senior drummer Nate Lavins, 17.
Instrument harnesses stored in the building have been vandalized in the past, band members said, and graffiti, though painted over, is still visible on a building wall.
Band Director Jeff Smith — who said Norwalk High School has earned championship status repeatedly since 1986 — said the band's success and the relative isolation of the Andrews Field building, might make it the target of vandalism and destruction.
Thursday's fire is considered "suspicious," officials said, and firefighters, with the help of canine units, were working to determine the cause of the fire Thursday morning.
Mayor Richard A. Moccia suggested in an interview that the fire was set.
"When you look at what happened with the fire today at Andrews Field, I think there's some indication, without getting into it, that it appeared to be youthful people who did that," he said.
Residents said flames from the building towered into the air, with burning embers flying off and landing on the school's former football field.
A tank of compressed argon gas, used for welding and stored in the building, exploded and shot through the roof, also landing on the field, officials said.
The fire was reported at 2:49 a.m. by Hour carrier Jackie Lainez, who was delivering newspapers in the area of Andrews Field when she smelled smoke and drove toward the scene.
"First I heard a boom and then the fire started to come from windows and the roof," Lainez said. "It was a big explosion."
Her co-worker Lisa Finch was in the area around 2:30 a.m. and said she smelled smoke, but did not report it because she couldn't find the source.
"What kills me is I was probably there when they were lighting it and I had no clue," Finch said.
When firefighters arrived shortly before 3 a.m., a power line had dropped across the roof of the building and onto an adjacent steel storage container, which became energized, preventing firefighters from attacking the fire, officials said.
Power lines were "on fire and sparking" when police arrived, Sgt. Praveen John said.
"It was arcing all over the place," he said, adding that police stood back until precautions could be taken.
The only water they could immediately put on the flames was from an aerial ladder, fire officials said.
Iannoccone said it took about 20 minutes for a crew from Connecticut Light & Power to arrive and cut power to the line.
As Norwalk High School band camp practice continued Thursday, inspectors were still searching the building's charred rubble.
State Police Detective Ken Christensen, who is assigned to the state's Fire Marshal's Office, assisted in the investigation with his dog, Presley. The dog is trained to identify locations that have the scent of accelerates, which arsonists use to rapidly ignite and spread a fire, he said.
After the dog stopped amid the debris, inspectors were seen collecting material and putting it in cans used to transport evidence.
A woman who works for the owner of the County Mall said the building has two surveillance cameras aimed at the rear parking lot. She said recordings of their images from Thursday morning would be made available to the fire inspectors.
Included in the fire's destruction were about 100 music stands, two electric pianos, a vibraphone, ice machines, band props, 50 pairs of pants and 60 pairs of shoes, Smith said.
"The worst part of it is, because of all the construction, when school ended in June we had to clear out the band room, because they were doing renovations in there," said Marching Bears Inc. President Jerry Petrini, adding that the shed was used to store the majority of equipment. "We lost almost everything."
The building also contained brass and plastic sousaphones, which Smith said cost $11,000 and $2,500, respectively.
All of the trophies the band won over the past three years — more than 100 pieces — were also lost, Smith said.
In addition, the building contained a weight apparatus belonging to the school's rugby team.
"It's really surprising," Kristina McLaughlin, 16, a junior member of the color guard, said of the fire. "I was just in there yesterday. You never thought anything like this would happen."
Hour Staff writers Jill Bodach, Noelle Frampton and Patrick R. Linsey contributed to this report.