Lee Vining community pulls together after fire
LEE VINING, Calif .- Driving 90 minutes south of the Carson Valley on Highway 395, you could miss Lee Vining if you sneezed.
You could miss Lee Vining if you gazed too long at the mesmerizing sight of magnificent Mono Lake just east of town, or looked too lingeringly at the spectacular wall of still snow-capped mountains west of the tiny community.
But if you were looking for a big heart, for a resounding resilience of the human spirit, you couldn’t possibly miss Lee Vining – population 315 – because here in the shadow of the Eastern Sierra, a community has been tested and so far it looks like the grades will be high.
One week ago, on Sept. 19, the citizens of Lee Vining awoke early to smoky skies and the terrible news that the high school was burning down.
After the ashes settled, the horrifying insult-to-injury information circulated that it was not only two of the town’s own who had set the fire, but two Lee Vining students who were responsible – a 14-year-old freshman and a 15-year-old sophomore who had recently left the school to be home-schooled. The two boys are currently being detained at the Inyo County juvenile detention center in Independence, Calif., awaiting a hearing next week.
– Local heroes. Saturday morning, while the arsonists were in their homes, where they were both later arrested and confessed, other LVHS students rallied in the early dawn to try and save the burning school.
Robert Garnica, 15, a sophomore, saw the smoke early from his home in a trailer park across the highway and called his friend, Alejandro Flores, 16, a junior, to relay the urgent news that the school was in trouble.
The boys raced to the school, now engulfed in flames, and immediately went to help other passers-by who were removing computers, books, desks and anything that could be picked up and taken out.
“We went over there and started taking things out of the classroom,” Garnica said. Both boys said they knew the suspects, and the word was that alcohol was a factor in the boys’ behavior, something the sheriff’s department had already confirmed.
“They were drunk, they were Yogi Bearin’ and that’s how they got the alcohol,” Flores said.
“It’s where they go steal the coolers of people camping, and lots of time there is alcohol in there,” Garnica said.
Mono County Sheriff Dan Paranick confirmed that at least one car had been vandalized Friday night and that ice chests containing alcohol had been missing from a nearby campground.
Flores and Garnica said their fellow students were anything but happy about this unscheduled school “vacation.”
“We’re mad, sad, disappointed and confused, really,” Flores said. “We’re all disappointed that they destroyed the school and caused this situation. We all just want to get back to school.”
Both Garnica and Flores have other siblings in Lee Vining schools, and both have been in the community since early elementary school.
“We have good teachers here, and we all just want to get back to normal,” Garnica said. “We heard the state architect came and looked at the school and it might not be fixed. It will be sad if they have to bulldoze the school.”
Flores said students had mixed reactions to the fact that siblings of the alleged arsonists still remained at school.
“Some of us went up to one of the brothers who was thinking it was his fault, and we said, ‘Hey, it’s not your fault, you didn’t burn the school down,'” he said.
After the fire, Flores and Garnica said there were students who were crying when they saw their blackened school.
– Temporary classrooms. Lee Vining, the “Gateway to Yosemite,” is a tiny tourist town, with two churches, one grocery market, eight gift shops, 11 motels, 10 restaurants, four gas stations, one pumice company and two schools: Lee Vining High School which housed approximately two dozen high school students and 20 junior high students and Lee Vining Elementary School.
The junior high students and their two teachers displaced by the fire will remain at a new Healthy Start building adjacent to the elementary school, while the high school students have moved to the Lee Vining Community Presbyterian Church.
When portables are brought in mid-October, all 45 secondary students will move to the temporary classrooms until a new school is built.
Monday, the 25 high school students and three teachers gathered at their temporary “school,” the Presbyterian church, and took a field trip to the high school site, still reeking of smoke from the fire two days prior. Puddles of water and soggy piles of unidentifiable material dotted the school’s parking lot and grassy yard.
A counselor was on hand to help the students through their initial stages of grief.
“It was really helpful to have the mental health lady there,” Flores and Garnica agreed. “A lot of people were crying when they saw the school.”
Meredith Ford, who has taught high school at LVHS for 10 years, said that beyond the disbelief, there have been lots of hugs and tears among her two dozen students.
“At this stage, we are coming away with a greater sense of pride in our kids,” she said. “Although this is very sad, it has really brought the kids together.”
Ford, who teaches subjects including English, social studies and Spanish, said the reaction of the students to the arsonists is complicated by the fact that the town is small and everyone knows each other.
“I think mostly they are upset and wondering, ‘Why did they ruin it for the rest of us?'” she said.
– Support pours in. Ford said generous help from the community as well as outlying areas has already been offered and brought in.
“First of all, the Presbyterian church is letting us bring 30 people in here every day until the end of October, and even though we’re trying hard to treat the building well, with this many people, we are bound to have an impact,” she said. “Then, we had community members bring food in for the kids and the Walker Lake Resort has offered money to help.”
A tourist staying in the Best Western motel across from the high school, who witnessed Saturday’s fire, wrote a check to the school, and tourists worked shoulder to shoulder with community residents in helping to remove items from the school during the fire and the clean-up that followed.
Interim superintendent for the Eastern Sierra Unified District, Bill Schmidt, said the responses from outlying school districts have been pouring in all week.
“We’ve had superintendents from Bishop, Owens Valley Unified District, Lone Pine – all call in and offer help,” he said. “I think this is typical of small rural communities. People rally to help each other.”
Schmidt said the Mammoth Lions Club, Independence (Calif.) Lions Club, civic club and school booster club, as well as Parent Teacher Organization groups from many schools had offered to help.
Schmidt is acting superintendent in the school district based in Bishop, which covers 600 students in nine schools from Coleville to Benton, Calif.
– Tight quarters. The Lee Vining Community Presbyterian Church is small, barely large enough to provide two separate teaching areas for the three teachers, including Ford, Kristin McBride, who teaches humanities, and health and Jeff Putman, who teaches math and science and is the volleyball coach to the LVHS Tigers girls’ team.
“We have eight girls at the school and all eight are on the volleyball team,” he said, modestly adding that their record so far is 3 wins, 0 losses.
“We don’t have a court for home games any more, so I guess we’ll be playing at Mammoth High School,” he said. Upon hearing about the fire, volleyball players at nearby Mammoth High, usually a rival for LVHS, gave volleyball T-shirts, bags of candy and cards to the girls, Putman said.
“It was especially nice since we beat them,” he said with a smile.
n A week to heal and regroup. In an effort to help teachers regroup and prepare for the next few months in the small church quarters, school was only in session for half-days all week.
Thursday, even though the students had been released from school at noon, many still remained on site into the afternoon, comforting each other and continuing to work through their myriad emotions.
Learning about productive ways to deal with their emotions such as anger, has been a challenge for everyone, Ford said. One of her first moves was to write a note to the mother of the fire’s instigator, telling her the incident would not affect their friendship.
“It was hard, but I know it was the right thing to do,” she said.
Hints that the Coleville fire department would like the opportunity to finish burning down the school if it is condemned are met with winces from teachers and students alike.
“Their high school is exactly the same floor plan as ours and they would like the chance to practice on our school in case they ever had to fight a similar fire in Coleville,” Ford said. “Right now, no one can imagine watching the school burn a second time. My rooms didn’t get burned, so it would mean watching them go up in flames.”
The fire was started in a box of computer paper in the computer lab next to the library. All the books and computers on the south side of the building were destroyed, with early estimates of damage around $3 million.
The chemistry classroom, where Putman taught, also went up with pops and bangs and the boys’ locker room was burned, too.
n Heart of the community. Nancy Lampson, principal of the Lee Vining schools – both elementary, junior high and high school – for the past four years, said the high school building was essentially Lee Vining’s community center, the site for the town’s open gym and the stage for many elementary school Christmas pageants and student plays over the last 37 years.
“This is where we gathered when anything big happened,’ she said. “This was the heart of our community.”
Lampson said the school district’s insurance will cover the loss, which will most likely include demolishing the old building and building anew.
The school was built in 1960 and housed the first students beginning in 1961.
“This building was supposed to last forever,” she said. “We’ve been very innovative, with computers and integrating classes, so we’ve kept up with the times.”
n A community gathers. Tomorrow, in a ceremony which will signify a rising-from-the-ashes pride coupled with a fond farewell, a site memorial called “Lee Vining High School, Past and Future,” will be held at 4 p.m. on the school’s football field. Current staff, parents and students have been invited alone with the many alumni who attended the high school in the past 37 years
“For years, we were the only high school in the southern half of Mono County, so a lot of people have gone through this particular school building,” Lampson said. “We felt that everyone needed some closure.”
Thursday evening, at the school board meeting in Lee Vining, the turnout was great and the mood was one of moving forward, Schmidt said.
“We got the great news that four state portables will be delivered Oct. 14, which is unheard of to get them that soon, and at the end of the meeting, the kids came in and turned out the lights because the girls volleyball team had just beat Coleville. They were so excited. It was great because it means their spirit is still up.”
On the marquee in front of LVHS, students decided to write the words from a Billy Joel song that best indicated their indomitable spirit – “We’re still standing. Better than we ever did.”
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