Woodridge counts cost of fire disaster

Firefighters battle in vain to stop the inferno engulfing the Woodridge school premises
Picture: Fredlin Adriaan

Woodridge College will start rebuilding immediately, after the devastating fires that destroyed about half of the school buildings at the weekend.

“We need to get back on track,” preparatory school headmaster Trevor von Berg said yesterday.

He said the aim was to put up temporary structures and reopen on July 4.

The pupils, many of whom quietly read their Bibles as they were transported out while the fires raged on either side of the road on Saturday, were all evacuated safely in the morning.

Grade 12 pupil Bevin Potgieter, 18, said the fire alarm had sounded shortly before 7am.

“Everyone met at assembly points and from there we were taken to the buses.

“There was thick smoke everywhere and we managed to grab some valuables before leaving,” he said.

Fellow Grade 12 pupil Sean Darnborough, 17, said: “The flames were jumping over the bus.

“I would not say it was chaos, but rather a mixture of excitement and panic. We really did not even have time to think, it happened so quickly.”

Sean’s sister, Grade 10 pupil Holly, said she had taken only her shoes.

“The smoke was thick and it was difficult to see anything.”

Von Berg said the support from the public and surrounding farming community had been fantastic.

“It’s been unbelievable. We have options. Parents who have houses in the area have offered to put the [prep] girls up.We have also had an offer from the YMCA,” he said.

Yesterday afternoon, firefighters blocked the school’s entrance to stop curious onlookers from entering.

Fire hoses lay strewn across the school grounds after fire hydrants ran dry on Saturday night.

A helicopter fitted with a water balloon was refilling at the school’s pool and water-bombing the still-smouldering buildings and surrounding bush.

Farmers and residents transported water in tanks to the school in bakkies.

The school’s kitchen, the girl’s preparatory boarding house, the art and music rooms, and the college hall and admin block were all severely damaged, with the staff housing worst affected.

The oldest building on site, the Old Cadle Hotel, built in the 1800s, survived.

The three-term school, situated in the Old Van Stadens Pass Road near Thornhill, between Port Elizabeth and Jeffreys Bay, was due to close for a break in two weeks’ time.

However, it will close now instead as a result of the fire, in the hope that temporary classrooms will be in place when staff and pupils return on July 4.

Nine temporary classrooms would be needed altogether, Von Berg said.

Members of the Woodridge Trust met yesterday morning to assess the damage and make plans.

Many of the Woodridge buildings were ruined
Picture: Fredlin Adriaan

A meeting with the staff took place in the afternoon and today staff, pupils and parents will attend a meeting at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth at 9am.

School driver and handyman Fabian Fortuin, who spent the night at St George’s school on Saturday after being evacuated, said his biggest fear was losing his job of 10 years.

But Von Berg said no one would lose their jobs.

He said some of the staff had parents who had worked at the school before them. “There is a lot of loyalty. We will look after them,” he said.

“No one will lose their job. We will have an educational psychologist out at the school, too.”

Fortuin said he and other staff members had tried to contain the fires but it was a losing battle.

“I’m not a firefighter, but my team did a great job,” he said. “I drove out on the tractor and helped with the hoses, but the wind didn’t play nicely with us.”

Von Berg said all the pupils and most of the staff had been evacuated to the Baywest Mall in Port Elizabeth by 8am, where they were met by their families, before the fires flared out of control. They had left in about six buses. “We got all of the horses out with the help of the horse community,” he said.

The wind picked up dramatically soon afterwards, fanning the flames.

“It was surreal. When the wind picked up later there was no stopping it,” he said. “It was blowing us over.”

Von Berg said while assessors had been at the school yesterday morning, it was too early to tell how much the damage would cost.

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