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February 3, 2014

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Investigators gather evidence from what remains of Coalmont elementary after early morning fire

COALMONT — Investigation continues into a ‘suspicious’ fire that destroyed the old Coalmont School in Clay County early Sunday.

The fire was through the roof of the school and adjoining gymnasium when firefighters arrived at about 1:40 a.m. at the former school property, located along Indiana 159 about a mile north of Shakamak State Park on Indiana 48.

“It went quickly,” said Shawn Husband, incident commander and assistant chief of the Lewis Township Volunteer Fire Department. “At this time, the fire is being considered suspicious.”

While the brick exterior of the structure remains, the roof above the gymnasium collapsed into the structure. Parts of the roof above the adjoining classrooms and hallways on the east side of the building also collapsed.

The interior of the gymnasium, which had wooden bleachers and a gymnasium floor reminiscent of the 1950s Hoosier basketball era, was covered with charred rubble from the ceiling, walls and wooden fixtures.

A limestone marker on the building indicates the building was erected in 1949-50. The former elementary school-junior high was closed in 1963, as its students were consolidated into the Shakamak School District in nearby Jasonville.

The original high school building on the northern part of the property was demolished years ago. But the gymnasium and an adjoining classroom wing remained and were used occasionally as a community building, for haunted Halloween events, as an indoor winter walking location and for storage.

Numerous area fire departments were called to the scene to assist in fighting the fire. As of Monday morning, wisps of smoke still rose from hot spots in the gym. The east windows of the building were destroyed in the fire, giving an interior view of metal bleacher frames and roof supports.

“The cause is still under investigation,” said Matt Wells, investigator with the State Fire Marshal’s Office. He was at the scene Monday morning looking through the debris of the school.

“We’re still working on where it started,” he said. “It sounds like it went quickly.

Wells noted that schools today are designed to contain fire and delay its spread, while the old Coalmont School did not even have a sprinkler system because of its age.

Deputies Johnnie Bohnert and Jerry Siddons of the Clay County Sheriff’s Department collected evidence at the scene as part of their investigation into the fire. Siddons said he believed that the utilities to the building were shut off, and he said the cause is being investigated as suspicious.

Lewis Township Fire Chief Bryan Husband said the building was owned by an area bank, but a local person was in the process of trying to purchase it to put the building back into use.

“The guy that was actually buying it was looking at reopening it for an open gym in the summer,” said Husband, who recalled attending elementary school in the building, as well as playing and refereeing basketball games in the gym.

“I’ve been a firefighter here for 40 years,” Husband said, “and you wonder why, why would anyone want to burn it down, or do anything to cause it to burn down.”

The loss of the former school will be hard for the tiny community of about 400 people.

Resident Norma Bemis, who grew up in the nearby countryside and graduated from the high school in 1948, said a lot of local people have connections to the school property. She worked for the school system first as the nurse’s assistant, and then as school secretary until the building closed, and later worked in Jasonville for the Shakamak District.

“I’m about the only one of us left,” she said of the old school staff.

“It meant a good bit to me, and I just hated it when the school went to Jasonville,” she said of the Coalmont school days. “I always liked this community. You knew everybody who lived in town. You could call each kid by name, and whenever I have a kid call me ‘Mrs. Bemis,’ I just know it was a kid from school.”

Bemis said she had heard that there were some suspicious people “coming and going” from the school property in recent weeks. Whatever the cause of the fire, she said she hopes that the remaining structure will be demolished and the site cleaned up soon.

“It will be an eyesore until they tear it down,” she said.

No injuries were reported as a result of the firefighting efforts. Assisting Lewis Township volunteers at the scene were firefighters from Jasonville, Wright Township, Linton, Clay City, Cory, Thunderbird, Shelburn, Riley and Pierson Township fire departments.

Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or Follow her on Twitter @TribStarLisa.

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