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NNSL Photo

Iqaluit fire Chief Cory Chegwyn walks in front of the ruins of Joamie school in Iqaluit. - Christine Kay/NNSL photo

Fire destroys Joamie school

Where students, teachers will go is uncertain

Kathleen Lippa
Northern News Services

Iqaluit (July 07/03) - Crowds of people rushed to their windows, the streets, and gathered on hillsides to watch Joamie school burn to the ground Friday.

Jamesie Kopalie stood and watched, too. He has lived next door to the school at 2218 A for three years.

"They came knocking, asking if we saw anything," said Kopalie, standing with family and friends as fire and emergency crews drove past. People crowded on his front yard to watch the flames, take pictures and videotape the scene.

"Somebody said it started from the bottom."

Kopalie's nieces attended the school.

"I heard somebody say, 'Are they going to save the playground?' Yes, they are. It's the only play area around here."

Fire crews concentrated on the flames raging through the gymnasium first, hoping to contain the fire. Flames spread beneath the school, and eventually the roof was ablaze. Soon, all firefighters could do was watch as the school burned to the ground. They ran out of water at about 1 p.m.

As the flames consumed the mostly wood structure, there were occasional sounds of breaking glass as each classroom window exploded.

The blaze sent huge black clouds of smoke into the clear sky and coated the city in a smog-like haze.

"It's terrible," said Kopalie. "It's a big loss. Lots of kids go to school there from this area. I don't know where they are going to put the kids next year. Most of the schools are full."

Francois Jeffrey, 14, and Nathan Hine, 15, attended Joamie and said they were not surprised by the fire.

"It should have happened a long time ago," said Jeffrey. "There are always kids playing under that school."

By early Friday afternoon, the elementary school, built in 1988 and named after respected Inuit hunter Joamie Ilinniarvik, was a smoky, charred ruin.

About 200 students attend the school during the year.

School officials were still coming to terms with the destruction on Friday, and what it will mean to the students and teachers.

"We're in the initial stages, trying to determine what our plan is going to be," said Pam Hine, deputy minister of education.

Putting students in the new arena is one option.

"We're certainly going to be looking at all options," she said. "We're lucky the fire started now, when we're out of the school season. You have time. You're not trying to find places for the kids tomorrow."

Hine said when the fire started, there was talk of it being limited to the gym area.

"Unfortunately they weren't able to do that," she said. "It went from a replacement of a gym to replacement of the whole school."

Within the next week or two, Hine said her department will have a better idea of what will happen to the students and teachers at Joamie.

"I've already had parents calling me offering their assistance. Everybody's devastated. It is a dramatic loss to the community."