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March 17, 1965
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TODAY'S LESSON --- the Elementary School Fire of 1965.

On St. Patrick's Day, March 17th, 1965, a fire broke out in the front building of Highland Springs Elementary School. It blazed for about three hours until brought under control by fire fighters. The building that housed the Primary, or lower, grades was destroyed.

Here is the story of that fire from the pages of the now-defunct Richmond News Leader:

From The Richmond News Leader, Thursday, March 18, 1965:


By Alfred Edmonds

The fire which swept the Highland Springs Elementary School’s front building resulted in a “complete loss” two Henrico officials said today.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s condemned”, said Henrico Fire Prevention Chief W. L. Stickel, referring to the burned out brick structure.

“We’ll have to knock it down,” he said.

George Moody, Henrico school superintendent, agreed with Stickel.

“It’ll have to come down,” Moody said. “There’s nothing here that can be salvaged.”

Moody said also he hoped “to be in a position by tomorrow to make an announcement” on when the school will reopen.

The fire, which erupted yesterday about 4 p.m. while some 100 pupils were in the auditorium watching a movie, destroyed 20 classrooms – about half the classroom area – in the school.


Fire Chief R. C. Gilman said it would be “at least a day or two before we will hope to know how this thing started.”

School authorities will not be able to estimate the damage costs until an inventory of the burned out section of the school is made.

Cashell Donahoe, Henrico’s assistant school superintendent, said today officials would “have to do some checking on what was in there” to determine the loss.

More than 500 of the school’s approximately 1,000 pupils were left without classrooms by the fire which destroyed the front half of the school.

Donahoe said that because the school’s front building is connected to the back building by a corridor which is sealed off, only minor damage was inflicted on the back building.

Numerous offers have been made by churches and civic organizations to help provide classroom space for those pupils who are without rooms, he said.

County firemen were alerted by a passing motorist who spotted smoke pouring from the northwest corner of the school and drove to the nearest firehouse.

The auditorium and cafeteria are in a building that connects two large classroom areas at the front and rear of the school. An alarm was sounded inside the school. The pupils and a few teachers watching the movie filed out when the alarm was sounded. Several teachers were also in the auditorium. After the children emerged from the east side of the building they waited a few minutes and started back inside. After about 90 of the pupils were back inside several stragglers spotted the fire.

One of them, Raymond Germain, a sixth grader, raced inside the auditorium, screaming “Fire! Fire!”

“As we were going out the second time, we could smell the smoke,” said fifth-grader Frank Dickman.

The school was soon surrounded by about a dozen county fire trucks, quickly followed by anxious parents. Crying mothers, hugging children, mingled with busy firemen.

Then as flames soared about 100 feet, firemen quickly sealed off the entire school. With a fireman standing on the top, a 100-foot ladder was sent up directly in front of the school and a stream of water was leveled down on the roof.

Some men climbed to the top of the auditorium-cafeteria and fought the blaze from the rear, trying to keep it contained to the front section.

As fire trucks concentrated water on the front section of the building, school employees and youngsters darted in the back section, salvaging desks, books and clothing.

But as flames began to soar high above the building and black smoke belched skyward, firemen sealed off the entire school.


Although a steady rain fell as firemen fought the fire, it blazed out of control more than three hours. It finally was brought under control about 7 p.m., Chief Gilman said.

The drenching rain did not keep spectators from crowding as close as possible to the fire. Many onlookers stood in downtown Highland Springs stores. The school is in the center of the town.

Although the school’s front building was a total loss, firemen kept the fire from spreading to the center corridor and rear building.

“I’m amazed at what those firemen did,” said Moody at the scene today.

The fire was fought mainly by units of the Henrico fire department, but a hook-and-ladder truck from the Richmond Fire bureau was employed briefly. Tank trucks from Goochland and Hanover were enlisted last night when existing water began to run low.

The destroyed front section of the schools was built in 1914 after another fire razed the existing elementary school. The back section was built as a high school.

The two buildings were connected by the center portion and the school turned into an elementary school after the present Highland Springs High School was built.


From The Richmond News Leader, Thursday, March 20, 1965:


Students being transferred from Highland Springs Elementary School Monday should report to the school as usual, Miss Margaret Lipscomb, the school’s principal, has announced.

Bus service will be provided from Highland Springs Elementary, Miss Lipscomb said. Sixth-graders will be going to Fairfield Junior High School and fifth-graders to Varina High School.

The transfers and other changes in the school’s program were caused by a fire which destroyed part of the school plant.

First and second graders will be placed on shifts beginning Monday. The first shift will run from 8:15 until 11:30 a.m., the second from 11:30 until 2:45 p.m.

On the first shift will be pupils of Miss Allison, Mrs. West, Miss Dunlap, Mrs. Katz, Miss Davis, Miss Berger and Mrs. Cuttino

Second shift students will be the pupils of Mrs. Green, Mrs. Hill, Mrs. Horton, Mrs. Smith, Mrs. Cooper, Mrs. Woodall and Miss Stone.

Buses will be picking up all children 10 minutes earlier than usual, Students for the second shift will be picked up at 11 a.m. Students walking to school should arrive by 8:10 a.m. for the first shift and by 11:25 for the second.


From The Richmond News Leader, Thursday, March 24, 1965


Pupils at fire-damaged Highland Springs Elementary School had an unscheduled fire drill today.

The students were evacuated after a fire alarm sounded this morning.

Fire Chief R. C. Gilman said the alarm was set off by a momentary power failure in the area. Three fire companies responded, but no action was required and the pupils returned to their classes.

A fire at the school last week caused damage estimated at $200,000.

Gilman said today that an investigation into the cause of the fire was continuing. One phase of the investigation, he added, was a review of motion pictures taken by a county police officer at the scene of the blaze.

Pupils in grades one through four are attending classes in an undamaged wing of the school. Fifth graders have been transferred to Varina High School and sixth graders have been switched to Fairfield Junior High School.


From The Richmond News Leader, Thursday, March 30, 1965


A fire that caused $200,000 damage to Highland Springs Elementary School apparently was started by wind-blown sparks from an incinerator, Fire Chief R. C. Gilman said today.

Gilman said a lengthy investigation into the March 17 blaze indicated that the sparks set fire to bird nests located on a brick-and-wood parapet around the upper portion of the school building.

The incinerator, Gilman said, is in a small building about 30 feet from the southwest corner of the school. The fire started in an attic above a classroom on the northwest corner, a fact that is consistent with the wind direction the day of the fire.


Gilman said the incinerator had a metal filter that allowed pieces of burning debris one or two inches in diameter to be discharged through a stack at the top of the building.

Because of the investigation, Gilman said, the incinerator was shut down yesterday so that a finer mesh wire could be installed in the filter. Checks of similar equipment at other Henrico county schools were being conducted.

Gilman stressed that no defects were found in the incinerator itself.


He added that “all evidence” pointed to the incinerator as the cause of the fire and said his department’s investigation was officially completed.

Adding weight to the official theory of the fire cause, Gilman said, was a statement from a patron of the school that wind-blown sparks from the incinerator landed on his car the afternoon of the blaze.

Gilman said fire officials tested the incinerator several times to determine the flight of the emitted sparks.

The only injury reported in the fire, which left one of the school’s two buildings a total loss, was to a fireman, who suffered a cut hand. A number of children were watching a late afternoon movie when the fire started, but they were safely evacuated.

History Lessons:
See the fire NOW!

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Thanks to Donna Jenkins Monnin for providing the 8-mm film shot by her father Tony.

Letters to the News Leader Forum, March 30, 1965:

Highland Springs Teacher Commends Many Helpers

Editor, The News Leader:

I am a sixth grade teacher at Highland Springs Elementary School, part of which was destroyed by fire on March 17. At this time, I would like to commend the many people who came to the aid of our school.

The Henrico County Police and Fire Department did a tremendous job at the scene of the fire. The blaze was contained in the front building and the rest of the school buildings were unharmed.

While the primary building was burning, parents, teenagers, and even the elementary children themselves rushed in the back building and brought many things out. Desks, school records and files, books and personal belongings were all carried to safety.

County employees in other sections of our county heard the news on the radio and came to our school to help. Even strangers passing by on Nine Mile Road, with no connection with our school, offered their assistance in getting property out of the buildings.

My own students and parents hurried to my room and removed all my books, records, and personal belongings. Even my JFK rocking chair was carried to the safety of another building. One lady was still in my classroom, gathering everything she could carry, when a fireman ordered her out of the smoke-filled building. He was wearing a gas mask!

All the students in are school are to be commended for the fine spirit in which they have met this disaster. I saw none of them laughing at the scene of the fire. I saw only expressions of disbelief and even a few tears.

Mr. Moody and our county school board worked a not too small miracle in getting organized by the following Monday so that classes could be resumed. True, some of us were sent to others schools in other locations, but we feel we are drawn now even closer together.

But above all, we are thankful that no child was killed or hurt in the fire. We have lost half our school, but we still have a lot to be thankful for.

In closing, I would like to give a special mention to our principal, Miss Margaret A. Lipscomb, and our assistant principal, Mr. Gene Wade. Under their never-faltering leadership, we survived this tragedy.



Praises Efforts of Firemen In Fighting School Fire

Editor, The News Leader:

The members of the Highland Springs Junior Woman’s Club would like to express our deep and sincere thanks to each of the men in the Highland Springs Volunteer Fire Department, as well as those of other counties and Richmond, who worked so hard the night the Highland Springs Elementary School caught fire.

Corresponding Secretary,
Highland Springs Junior Women’s Club