Despite hours of effort from six departments and thousands of gallons of water, fire destroyed the main building at Selwyn College Preparatory School on Thursday.
Morning rush-hour traffic slowed to a crawl on U.S. Highway 380 a mile west of Interstate 35 as police officers directed water tankers from Justin, Ponder, Little Elm, Sanger and Krum between hydrants along the highway and the flaming building, which is set back from the roadway atop a hill.
Denton firefighters asked for help moving water, since the distance from the hydrants to the building was so great.
The 50-year-old U-shaped building housed administration offices and kindergarten through third grade at the private school.
The fire apparently started shortly after 6 a.m., and the building was already three-quarters engulfed in flames when the first fire units arrived, said Battalion Chief Brad Lahart, a spokesman for the Denton department.
No one was in the building when the fire started.
Though flames shot hundreds of feet in the air, firefighters were able to protect several other buildings on the campus that house higher grades, some living quarters, a dining hall and a gym.
David Biles, chairman of the Selwyn board, said about 180 students currently attend the school. He arrived about 6:30 a.m. to find the building already past saving.
"This is very sad, but our first concern is for our kiddos," Biles said. "We're canceling school today and tomorrow, but we hope to be fully operational again by Monday."
He said he was pleased that the dining hall, which was designed by acclaimed architect O'Neil Ford in the 1960s, was not harmed.
Biles said he has two children at the school, and his wife teaches in the lower grades. The school will start a fundraising effort to replace the building, the campus' oldest.
"I think that our families will pull together and do the best thing for our kids," he said.
Smoke continued to roil from the building for most of the day. By midmorning, though the fire in the front portion had been contained, the other side began burning in earnest, sending more columns of black smoke skyward.
"We knew that the [rear] wing would go down at some point because the fire was already in the attic," Lahart said. "We managed to salvage some property from that wing before we had to pull out, and we saved some rabbits and rats and mice that were caged in there."
Denton County fire marshals assisted Denton fire marshals in the effort to determine what started the fire, but they were not able to enter the portion of the building, where the flames were thought to have ignited, until about 3 p.m.
By late afternoon, firefighters had the fire contained and under control, Lahart said.
Denton Fire Marshal Rick Jones said Thursday afternoon that it might be early next week before a cause of the fire could be determined.
"We're concentrating on an area in the center part of the north hallway," he said. "We have a tremendous amount of work to do, digging out the debris. We are not ruling anything out at this point, including lightning, faulty wiring or foul play. But at this point we have found nothing that suggests a suspicious cause."
Jones said some employees live in another building on campus, and those people are being interviewed. The destroyed building has been grandfathered into fire codes, he said, and wiring and construction would not meet the fire code requirements of today.
"In a building built under current codes, there would have been a sprinkler system," he said. "The sprinklers would have put out a fire before we could get here. There was an audible alarm but not an off-site-monitored alarm."
Denton school district spokesperson Sharon Cox said that Superintendent Ray Braswell has offered assistance to Selwyn Headmaster Connie Miller, "to offer any help Selwyn might need - including classrooms or portable buildings."
Miller could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Teachers, students and alumni said they were upset to see the black smoke that dominated the skyline west of Denton. At the site Thursday morning, Mellina Stucky looked on as fire engulfed the building.
Stucky said she thought of the historical photographs inside that can't be salvaged and are gone forever, and the dining hall light fixtures created by Central Texas artists.
"It's very sad to me because there are things that can't be replaced," Stucky said. "There's just a lot of things that you can't replace."
For more than half a century, Selwyn has been a fixture in the lives of Stucky and her family, she said. She started kindergarten there in 1958, one year after the school's opening, and graduated high school there; her mother worked at the school; her father is a former board member; her husband is a current board member; and now, her children are students there.
She said she went into shock when the early-morning call came that a portion of the school was on fire.
"It's been a part of my family for several generations," Stucky said. "It was devastating. It was very hard for me to see the building burning because I've spent my whole life one day or another at Selwyn."
She and many others rushed to the campus Thursday as firefighters worked to extinguish the flames. They were not allowed close to the fire but watched from the parking lot of a nearby church. Overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness, Stucky said they all wondered what they could do.
"We're not knowing what our next step will be, but this is a strong group," she said. "We will get through this. We've gotten through things before, and we will get through this."
For many, Selwyn is more than just a school; it's family, and a tragedy such as this will only make that family stronger, Stucky said.
There's a spirit at Selwyn, Stucky said, unlike any place she's ever been.
"We're not just a school. There's a feel to it you don't have at other places. You know that you can depend on the people at Selwyn to be there for you and to be there for the school."
Phone calls started early Thursday morning between the high school students, who she said shared all the information they had with one another.
"They will rebuild," Stucky said. "That's just the way a lot of people feel."
News of the fire was "heart sickening" for former headmaster Robert Estes, who said that he holds fond memories of his time at the school.
U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Lewisville, is a Selwyn alumnus, class of 1968. He said he heard about the fire Thursday but had not spoken to anyone about the extent of the damage.
"Some of the structures go back to the day I was in school," he said.
Students, staff and alumni gathered Thursday afternoon at the local bistro Banter to cope with the loss of their school building.
Banter owner Ellen Ryfle said her daughter, Katherine Ralph, is a Selwyn graduate. The group met at Banter because of Katherine, she said, but Katherine was too busy cooking to be able to mingle with the crowd.
Some in the assembled group compared the fire to a death in the family.
"Seeing all the videos and pictures … I just couldn't bear watching it," said Aneesa Vaidya, a Selwyn sophomore. "It was very sad to see."
What was destroyed was so much more than just a structure, said Olivia Tullos-Sisca, a senior at Selwyn.
"The building just contributes so much to the experience of Selwyn," she said. "It's just so hard not seeing it there."
To Lauren Jeffcoat, Selwyn is home. She's been there 12 years, she said, and once lived in an apartment building on a portion of the campus that has now been converted into Upper School classroom space.
It's devastating, the 12th-grader said.
"This place was home," Jeffcoat said. "Seeing it like that was hard."
Stucky remembered that students planted every tree on campus and had a hand in building the patios and sidewalks.
"Since this is a K-12 school, many of us grew up at Selwyn," she said. "It's like watching the house you grew up in burn down."
DONNA FIELDER can be reached at 940-566-6885. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .
BRITNEY TABOR can be reached at 940-566-6876. Her e-mail address is email@example.com . SELWYN THROUGH THE YEARS
1957: The Denton Preparatory School was formed under the guidance of George Bragg, founder of the Denton Civic Boy's Choir, and a group of parents in an old frame dormitory leased from Texas Woman's University. With $100 borrowed from a local bank, the first classes began with 33 students.
1959: The school leased a farm on the outskirts of Denton to accommodate its 85 students and the new boarding program. Members of the community converted barns into classrooms and the residence into a dormitory.
1961: Newton J. Rayzor donated 100 acres to the school off U.S. Highway 380 just west of Interstate 35. Construction started on three interconnecting units in a U-shaped format that then housed a laboratory and classroom wing; a dining room, study hall and kitchen wing; and a residential wing to house up to 20 boarding students. The building - which originally housed the core of the campus - was built from concrete blocks, according to newspaper archives.
1962: The name was of the school was changed to Selwyn School in honor of Selwyn Rayzor Singleton, daughter of the late Newton Rayzor. Her son later attended the school.
1964: Additional buildings were added, including a dining hall, science building, additional dorms for boys and girls and a new gymnasium, which opened in 1970. O'Neil Ford, a well-known architect based in San Antonio, had created a campus master plan and designed several of the structures, including the amphitheater.
2012: About 180 students currently attend the school, which is now known as Selwyn College Preparatory School, according to the school's website.