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Investigation underway into three-alarm fire at Richmond’s William Fox Elementary

Richmond firefighters work around William Fox Elementary School
Richmond firefighters continue to work around William Fox Elementary School, where flames engulfed the building late Friday night into Saturday morning. (Photo: Scott Elmquist / VPM)

School district and city officials focused on the students and community in a press conference Saturday morning after a three-alarm fire ravaged the century-old William Fox Elementary in Richmond’s Fan District. Fire trucks were still on-site, with water streaming down the sidewalks from the fire department’s ongoing efforts to dampen hotspots.

“Because the thing about the Fox community is, it's not about a building,” Daniela Jacobs, the school’s principal, said during the press conference. “The Fox spirit lives within each and every one of us in this community. We are strong. We will manage this together. Be patient with us as we are making laid out plans and the best plans for everybody here in the community.”

Classes will be canceled on Monday and Tuesday, as teachers and staff prepare to start virtual learning on Wednesday. District leaders still have to figure out where students will finish the school year.

The former Clark Springs Elementary building is a possibility, Richmond Superintendent Jason Kamras said Saturday, though other options are also being assessed.

Students at Fox returned to in-person classes last September, and Jacobs isn’t excited about the return to temporary virtual learning.

“I don't want to go back virtually, I want our students to be here in person,” Jacobs said. “Our students are thriving in person and it's better for everybody in person.”

Nobody was injured in the fire. Luckily, Chromebooks were with students and not in the building, Kamras said.

“One of the silver linings of the pandemic is that we are prepared for, unfortunately, this eventuality,” Kamras said.

Questions about how – and why – the fire started in the first place are still uncertain. According to a press release from the Richmond Fire and Emergency Services Department, crews responded to a reported fire at Fox Elementary School at about 10:35 p.m.

It took fire crews about four hours to control the fire.

The fire department release states that “once on scene, they encountered heavy smoke and flames coming from the top floor above the main entrance. The fire was quickly spreading across the top of the structure. At approximately 10:50 p.m., a second alarm was struck.

At approximately 11:09 p.m., parts of the roof began to collapse, so all crews were evacuated from the interior. They then focused on a defensive attack from the exterior. At approximately 11:13 p.m., a third alarm was struck. At approximately 2:44 a.m., the incident was marked under control.

It wasn’t until questioned by the Richmond Times-Dispatch about an earlier dispatch to the school – around 9:30 p.m. Friday – did officials add this detail to the narrative. The newspaper first reported a school alarm sent fire officials to the building before the fire began. 

“We’re trying to get to the bottom of that…fire crews did respond and did gain access to the building and search the building,” Richmond Fire Chief Melvin Carter told reporters Saturday.

“But we’re trying to determine if it was a burglar alarm – or some other type of alarm – other than the fire alarm.”

Carter said a crew of about 12 firefighters let themselves into the building, and searched for around 42 minutes. After not finding any smoke or fire conditions, firefighters left the scene.

When asked by VPM whether or not every room of the school was searched, Carter said “I don’t have all of the details yet. I can assure you they did a thorough search.”

The cause of the fire is currently under investigation by the Richmond Fire Investigations Unit, and the extent of the building’s damage is still uncertain. Jim Nolan, press secretary for Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, told VPM it was “still an active fire scene” as of Saturday morning. “It's really hard to judge right now the extent of the damage,” Nolan added. “I imagine in short order, we'll have a much better assessment of what we're looking at in terms of the condition of the building and what its future is.” 

Kamras said those interested in helping can make donations online.

“100% of funds donated will go to support students and teachers in the Fox community,” Kamras said.

Megan Pauly covers education and health care issues in the greater Richmond region.