‘Stunning’ damage to historic SouthArk building
Salvage efforts to continue
A clear, sunny Monday was the backdrop as crews made their way through the administration building at South Arkansas Community College’s west campus, searching for salvageable material.
The 113-year-old building, known as the 1905 Junior College Building on the National Register of Historic Places, caught fire late Friday after a lightning strike hit the roof. Emergency crews worked throughout Friday night and most of Saturday to extinguish the fire, and now college officials are trying to sort through the remnants and focus on next steps.
Heath Waldrop, coordinator of marketing and communications at SouthArk, said fire crews worked until about 4 p.m. or 4:30 p.m. Saturday to put out the fire, which had at first been contained, but repeated tornado warnings early Saturday morning led emergency crews to seek shelter and gave the fire time to start back up.
But the damage now is more due to smoke and water. A small group of college officials, an insurance representative and a representative of Metro Disaster Services, which is helping with the recovery, toured the building on Sunday morning, Waldrop said, and the damage was startling to see.
“The water damage is really what got us,” he said. “It was stunning.”
Waldrop said millions of gallons of water were used to put out the fire that then soaked through the rest of the building. At one point, he said, the basement, which has about 8-foot high ceilings, was full with water that began pouring out the side staircases.
The office of Dr. Barbara Jones, SouthArk president, was the hardest hit, he said, as it is situated in a part of the building that was difficult for the fire department to reach.
“Her whole suite is trashed,” Waldrop said.
But, he said, the damage could have been so much worse if it hadn’t been for a well-timed tripping of the alarm at the computer technology building, something that is not uncommon in powerful storms. Because the alarm went off, the police responded, Waldrop said, and noticed the smoke coming off the roof of the administration building.
“If that had not happened, considering the weather, at the time people were not out,” Waldrop said. “Who knows when people
would have noticed it?”
He pointed out the administration building’s proximity to two other campus buildings and noted that without the police response at 10:30 p.m. Friday, all three buildings could have been completely lost.
“We were really fortunate that they saw it when they did,” Waldrop said.
And not everything was destroyed. Waldrop noted that somehow the famous signature of Elvis Presley in the attic of the building is still intact.
“We checked it (Sunday) and it is still there. It survived,” Waldrop said. “Long live the King.”
On Monday, crews with Metro Disaster Services were going through the building and removing items. While Waldrop said most everything in the building is not salvageable, he noted “a surprising amount is.” Pieces of artwork, antique furniture and other wall hangings were being taken to the gym next door to the administration building to dry out. The majority of current records in the building were backed up digitally, he said.
Beyond that, the next steps will depend on what happens after an insurance agent tours the property. The building is insured through the state.
Waldrop said the hope is to restore the historic building, but that will depend on the insurance and a discussion with the college’s board on how best to move forward. Another issue is that because the building is on the National Register of Historic Places there will be other requirements to abide by in restoring the structure.
“It looks like it is capable of being restored,” Waldrop said. “This is iconic … It is an important building in the community.”
In the meantime, the roughly two dozen SouthArk employees who worked in the building have been moved to other locations, wherever officials could find space.
Ruined: The couch in the receiving area of the president’s suite in the administration building at SouthArk, ruined by water, soot and debris.
Recovery: On the first tour of the building, finance Vice President Carey Tucker, far left; President Dr. Barbara Jones, center; and Metro Disaster Services representative Richard Elliot assess damage to the third floor.