The investigation into a devastating fire at Selwyn College Preparatory School took a dramatic turn Tuesday with a revelation by the fire marshal that the ignition source was a flammable liquid.
“We have made the determination that this was a set fire,” said Denton Fire Marshal Rick Jones. “We are now pursuing a criminal investigation.”
The fire started in the early-morning hours Jan. 26 in the school’s 50-year-old U-shaped main building on U.S Highway 380 just west of Interstate 35. The building, which housed administration offices and kindergarten through fifth-grade classrooms, was three-quarters engulfed in flames when the first fire units arrived. No one was in the building when firefighters got there.
Though flames shot hundreds of feet into the air, firefighters were able to protect several other campus buildings that house higher grades, some living quarters, a dining hall and a gym.
David Biles, chairman of the Selwyn board, said about 180 students attend the school. He arrived at about 6:30 a.m. that day to find the building already past saving.
Biles said Tuesday that he had heard nothing about an ignitable liquid from the fire marshal’s office.
“This is news to me,” he said. “I really can’t comment until I have seen a report. I mean, there is a closet in there that contains cleaning supplies and an art room that may have had some paint thinner or something like that. It wouldn’t surprise me if something like that had been spilled on the carpet.”
Selwyn Headmaster Connie Miller had a similar reaction to the news.
She said she last spoke to investigators at the fire department last week.
“I can’t imagine that being the case,” Miller said of the idea the fire was intentionally set. “I’m just awaiting whatever the fire department tells us at this point.”
Jones said that investigators determined early on that the fire started in the area of the kindergarten room and the hallway it lies on. There were several electrical appliances in that area, and wiring in the old building was suspect. But he found no electrical malfunctions that could have caused the fire, he said.
Baltic, the fire department dog whose nose has been trained to detect accelerants and flammable liquids, showed alertness in the hallway and in the classroom, Jones said. Investigators then took samples of the carpet and underlying material as well as samples near the cleaning supply closet. The samples were sent to a lab for testing.
The results came back Tuesday.
“The tests showed an ignitable liquid on the floor of the hallway and the kindergarten room but not in the sample near the closet,” he said. “We have done interviews with everyone at the school, and we have spent about 50 hours digging out the debris. We knew from the beginning that it would take extensive scene investigation.”
Jones said investigators need help from anyone who may have seen anything that didn’t seem suspicious at the time but might seem out of the ordinary in light of the test results. Perhaps someone saw a car leaving the school between 4:30 and 6:30 a.m., he said. Perhaps someone now recalls some other bit of information that might be relevant in light of the new direction the investigation has taken.
He asked anyone with any information to call Brian Gilmore at 940-349-8865.
“We can’t find a reason for an ignitable liquid to be on the hallway and kindergarten floor,” he said. “We believe this is an intentionally set fire.”
Staff writer Britney Tabor contributed to this report.
DONNA FIELDER can be reached at 940-566-6885. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.