Milford school burns just before vote on its demolition

MILFORD – Investigators are still looking into the cause of the fire that virtually destroyed the 77-year-old Garden Street School early Monday, the day before voters are to decide whether to tear it down.

Hampered by the dangerous condition of the three-story, brick building, which was gutted by the blaze, investigators would not say Monday whether they thought the fire was accidental or suspicious in nature.

For the past two years the Garden Street School has been used only by about 20 students in the special Sage School, designed for teens who have trouble coping with traditional classrooms. The fire apparently started on the second, or main, floor, where the Sage School holds classes. The top floor of the school was closed off and the basement used only for storing records.

Fire departments from six towns were called in to fight the fire, which was reported at 12:48 a.m. and brought under control four hours later. One firefighter was slightly injured when the roof collapsed at 2:16 a.m., and two others were treated for smoke inhalation, officials said.

Although the Garden Street School is surrounded by homes and wooden apartment houses, some less than 100 feet away, no other buildings were damaged.

Investigator John Raymond of the state fire marshal’s office would not say Monday whether the fire was suspicious, noting that investigators were being careful about their examination until the building’s brick walls could be shored up.

The school is of old-fashioned “balloon construction,” and so the loss of the interior frame has left them with little support. Officials may bring in a crane to remove debris that is pushing against the out walls before going away with extensive investigation.

The school, which served as an elementary school for Milford starting in 1925, is the center of the most important item to be voted on Tuesday at town meeting. A $2.95 million warrant article would tear down the school and replace it with a new police station.

It was unclear whether the fire would affect that decision, although the proximity to voting day did produce many rumors in town – with some speculating that the fire had been set to make it easier for people to support the warrant article, and others speculating that it had been set to turn people against the idea.

Milford Police Chief Richard Pauley said that nine engines, four ladders trucks, a rescue vehicle and two utility trucks were brought in to fire the fire, with assistance from departments in Amherst, Wilton, Mont Vernon, Hollis and Brookline. A special “tower ladder” truck was brought from Hollis after the roof collapsed and firefighters had to be evacuated from the building for safety reasons.

There is no school in Milford on Tuesday due to elections. School Board Chairman Peter Bragdon said Monday that officials hoped to have found an alternate location for the Sage School by Wednesday.