By Kay Harris VDT
HAHIRA -- A suspicious fire broke out in the auditorium of the former Hahira Middle School on Main Street after midnight Saturday, destroying the entire structure.
"All indications are it was arson," said Hahira Mayor Myron Crowe. "There was no power running into the building. It is almost impossible that it could have just started by itself."
More than 20 fire trucks responded to the blaze, which could be seen for miles.
Volunteers from Barrets, Shiloh and North Lowndes fire departments joined dozens of firefighters from Hahira and Valdosta to battle the flames for more than five hours. Crews had to return to the scene on Sunday afternoon to extinguish hot spots which had again flared up. Only a few brick walls were still standing as the entire structure was completely gutted by the blaze.
A large crowd of Hahirans gathered in the wee hours of Sunday morning, watching in disbelief as the fire spread quickly through the brick and wood structure, engulfing the historic school that was built in the 1920s.
It closed in December 2001 when the county built the new Hahira Middle School directly across Main Street.
Former City Councilman Wayne Bullard, currently running for re-election, stated that the city was closing negotiations with the Lowndes County Board of Education this month to take possession of the former school and renovate it into office space.
Watching as firefighters fought to contain the blaze as it spread from one building to the next of the horse shoe shaped structure, Bullard commented, "All of our plans just went up in smoke."
Crowe confirmed that the city was negotiating with the Board and had just completed a preliminary walk through of the school last week. "Structurally, it was in excellent shape. We intended to move the fire department in first, on one side of the main wing, followed by the police department and then the administrative offices. We were really excited about saving the 300-seat auditorium."
Crowe said the city had also discussed the potential of using part of the building to house a variety of community services, including a community center, and intended to talk to Valdosta Technical College about the possibility of adding a satellite center there.
"The building was so large, we could do everything we needed to do in it," he said.
The Hahira school initially served grades one through 12 before becoming a middle school in the mid-1960s. It was open until Christmas break of December 2001, when the students and equipment were transferred across the street into a new, state-of-the-art building. The Board had a portion of the old school demolished to make way for a parking lot, but the historic original portion of the structure was left standing as the Board and the city tried to find a way to save it and best utilize it.
"We had already worked out a deal. We even had a timeframe for the renovations. We didn't want it to just sit there -- we wanted to to use it for the good of the community," Crowe said.
According to the mayor, the state fire inspector was called in and was conducting an investigation Sunday to determine the exact cause of the fire and to see if it was indeed deliberately set.
Crowe, who stayed on site until 3:30 a.m. Sunday, said Hahira Fire Chief Dwight Bennett was extremely upset that the fire crews were unable to save the historic building. "There was a tremendous amount of wood in it. It just flared up and spread too quick. About all they could do was contain it to keep it from spreading to the neighborhood.
"We had so many dreams and aspirations for the building. It was a very sad night for the city."
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