Minor fire at Academy of the Holy Family is quickly contained

By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Baltic - posted Mon., Jan. 21, 2013
Firefighters from Baltic and four other local companies responded to the Jan. 15 alarm.
Firefighters from Baltic and four other local companies responded to the Jan. 15 alarm.

Quick response from a half-dozen local fire companies quickly contained a minor fire that broke out Jan. 15 at the Academy of the Holy Family in Baltic. Students and sisters in the school complex were evacuated quickly, and no injuries were reported.

Baltic Fire Department Deputy Chief Tom Girard said that the alarm went off at 10:39 a.m., followed in short order by a 911 call reporting smoke from the roof of the motherhouse, which serves as living quarters for the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady Mother of the Church, as well as dormitories for resident students. “Luckily it was the roof over the front door, not the main roof,” Girard said. Students, teachers and resident sisters were quickly evacuated, and the 20 sisters in the convent infirmary were sheltered in place, safely away from the fire in another part of the complex, said Girard.

The fire straddled the first and second floors of the structure, but within an hour the companies had extinguished the blaze and were rolling up their hoses. The only visible evidence of the fire was a patch of shattered brick just above the porch roof.

The Academy is a private Catholic high school for girls. The Sisters of Charity, who run the school, have between 60 and 70 sisters in residence at the motherhouse, said Mother Mary David Riquier, SCMC, the order’s mother vicaress. She said that no students were in the motherhouse at the time of the fire, and that the evacuation of students from classrooms to an outdoor gathering place went smoothly. “I think God was really watching over us,” she said. “No one was hurt, when you think it could have been so much worse. The damage was really minimal.”

Besides Baltic, firefighter assistance teams from Occum, Yantic, Taftville and Lebanon responded to the blaze, Girard said. “We’re all volunteers out here so we never know” how many firefighters can respond, he said. “The municipal water system here is only going to do so much.” He said that the building is equipped with sprinklers, but firefighters tapped their pumpers into the nearby brook to save the municipal water for the sprinklers.

Mother David said that the motherhouse, which is the oldest part of the complex, dates back nearly 200 years, and had been a hotel prior to the religious order’s arrival in 1874. Both she and Girard said that the original all-wood structure is faced with a façade of brick. The double structure required extra vigilance to extinguish flames that had spread between the two layers.

Mother David called the fire companies’ quick response “outstanding,” saying that they took pains to preserve the historic structure even as they sought to get to the fire’s source. “They were very solicitous about the interior of the building. There’s some beautiful woodwork on the ceiling, and they cut through the panels and didn’t disturb the woodwork,” she said.

Initial reports suggested that the fire might have been ignited by sparks from maintenance staff working on flashing on the roof, Girard said. Sprague Fire Marshal Rick Hamel was investigating the cause of the blaze, he said.

Strict enforcement of fire codes, along with frequent evacuation drills at schools, has dramatically reduced the danger of injury from school fires over the years. Voluntown Fire Department Chief Jody Grenier said that the last fatalities in a U.S. school fire occurred in 1958 at Our Lady of Angels Catholic School in Chicago. According to the website www.olafire.com, the blaze claimed the lives of 92 children and three nuns. The disaster led to sweeping nationwide reforms in fire code enforcement for schools, along with a new emphasis on fire drills, to help students learn to quickly depart a building due to any emergency.

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