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Published in Print: November 11, 1998, as Fire Power

Fire Power

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Whatever theories can be constructed as to why kids set fire to schools, there's just no explaining it sometimes.

Once at the school, the boys smashed a rear window with a chunk of concrete drainage pipe. Inside, Duncan says, they poured copier fluid on a desk and set it on fire.

What happened next is not clear; Duncan says the boys have never given a full accounting of their actions that night. But it appears that after they started a few fires in the school, the boys left and met up with Corey Lee Switzer, a former Cross Plains football player. Switzer had attended a bachelor party in Abilene earlier in the evening and was driving around town when he ran into the two students. Switzer and the boys then went to a nearby Conoco gas station, where they bought gasoline, Duncan says. Switzer has steadfastly maintained his innocence, saying he did not know what the two boys planned to do with the fuel.

Afterward, Switzer and the boys went their separate ways, according to Duncan, and the boys re-entered the school. One or the other--and possibly both--splashed gasoline over desks, floors, walls, the trophy case, and school records and set fire to it all. Along the way, Duncan says, they broke into vending machines and yanked the alarm system out of the wall.

Upon leaving the building, they broke into the nearby portable building and set it ablaze, too, according to Duncan. About 4 a.m., as the town slept, a woman who delivers newspapers saw smoke rising from the portable building and called the fire department.

"To have gone through and done what they did and splash as much gasoline as they did, it looks like they'd have to have been in there at least an hour," says Don Turk, the deputy state fire marshal. "I came up with seven separate fires.

"Some of the areas had good starts, and some of them didn't. The superintendent's office got to going real good. The fire in the principal's office never did get going. They'd shut the doors, shutting off oxygen to it. The fires in the lockers never did start. Everything else was locked up. Had everything not been locked up, they would have put it on the ground. There would have been nothing the firefighters could have done about it."

Principal Rondall Sanders arrived at the school early the next morning, when the building was still wreathed in smoke. As soon as it was safe, he toured what was left of his school. "When they finally let me in, everything was wet, muddy, and cold," he recalls as he walks through the main school building months later.

Here and there, scars remain. The tile floors are charred in the hallway where the arsonists piled up winter coats and set them ablaze. Burnt wiring still dangles from the ceiling. Some of the steel beams supporting the roof are noticeably twisted. In a room near the superintendent's office, an old safe sits in the center of the floor, soot-covered.

"This was the worst," Sanders says upon entering Charlene Fleming's chemistry classroom. "The sad part is, Mrs. Fleming took it personally. I've never seen such a hurt person. She felt like the kids must have been mad at her for something. But I don't think they had a thing in mind against her. Her door was unlocked. It was just a coincidence."

When Sanders later led students through the burned-out building, they were stunned when they reached Fleming's room. "When they got to this door," he says, "Mrs. Fleming was standing in the room. It was totally quiet. There was lots of emotion."

Fleming, a soft-spoken 23-year veteran of the Cross Plains schools, keeps a packet of photos of the school and her classroom she snapped the afternoon after the fire. "It was cold and dark and wet, and there was no electricity," she says. "It was almost like walking into a tomb."

She was relieved to learn that her room likely was not chosen out of spite. Some of what burned, though, were keepsakes from her many years in the classroom. "There was a teacher's prayer and a coffee cup students had given me," she says. Teaching in a different room, without these little mementos, has been disconcerting. "You just need to have something that's yours."

Joe Coppinger's English classroom was next door. It, too, sustained serious damage. "It was my 17th year in that room," he says. "And it was well-known that you don't mess with Mr. C's room. I had a real attachment to it."

Despite the fire, not a day of class was missed. Home economics classes were transplanted to a hallway of the elementary school. Students had history lessons in locker rooms. Math was taught in the old field house. Fleming took over a classroom in the nearby agricultural education building. And Sanders wedged his lanky body into a makeshift office in a storage room under the gymnasium bleachers.

The Abilene school district donated a three-room portable building, and many surrounding districts provided desks and supplies. Local businesses, like the Wal-Marts in Abilene and Brownwood, chipped in, too. There were no lockers, so students were given backpacks.

Sanders and his colleagues resolved to get back to business as soon as possible. But first they needed to attend to their own grief and to that of the students. On the Monday after the fire, Sanders convened a student assembly. "It was mainly to let students know what was going on," he says. "We asked people to just come up and talk. Some students wrote letters to the firefighters, thanking them for their help."

By that time, no arrests had been made, and most of the students were unaware that the two people responsible for the destruction sat in their midst.

Sanders knew, though. "Some of the kids had been telling us that there were some who left that party," he says. "I knew they were suspects." He recalls seeing the two boys at the assembly. "They were sitting about five rows behind me. They were having a tough time of it. They were sweating it out pretty bad."

In the fire's aftermath, local and state investigators gathered with officials from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. They, too, had heard about the party. Chief Duncan, together with an ATF officer, began nosing around. "We talked to the boys and interviewed a lot of kids at the party," Duncan says. "We thought these boys were lying to us. After we confronted them, they admitted it." By mid-afternoon on Monday, Dec. 8, both boys were under arrest.

Stories soon circulated about why the school was targeted. Local newspaper accounts suggested that the boys had burglarized the school's vending machines to take goodies back to the keg party and that the fires were set simply to cover their tracks.

Some people in town hinted that the boys had it in for the principal and the superintendent. Callahan County District Attorney Allen Wright, who prosecuted the two boys, says he heard rumors that at least one of the boys had a beef with a teacher or administrator and talked of setting fire to the school days earlier.

But Wright doesn't think the evidence suggests that. The offices of the principal and the superintendent were torched, but so were many other areas of the building. The boys have never explained why they set the fires, according to Wright. "I just think it was a prank," he says. "They went in there to do some vandalism, and apparently one thing led to another, and it got worse and worse."

Principal Sanders suggests the fire was the result of some partying that got out of hand. Neither boy had a record as a troublemaker before the fire.

Some people in Cross Plains are ready to forgive the boys, but others doubt the two have undergone a conversion. They'll have to see it to believe it.

One of the boys has returned to the school to talk about the dangers of substance abuse, and his family has spoken at drug-awareness events. According to his father, the boy had begun running with a fast crowd and was drunk the night of the fire. "From talking to our son, we just think it was something that got out of hand," the father says. "But it's not like we have all the answers at this point."

The father says the boy has undergone extensive psychological tests since his arrest, none of which indicates that he has deep-seated emotional problems. "This was an aberration," the father says, "We're thankful for that."

Joe Coppinger, who retired as a teacher at the end of last year to devote himself to his duties as pastor of the Cottonwood Baptist Church, knew the boy well. The boy's family, whose ancestors helped settle the area, is stable and supportive, Coppinger says. The father is a leader in the Cottonwood church. The boy is simply a good, smart kid who made an awful, stupid choice, Coppinger says. "He had no idea why he did it."

The other teenager did not have such a Norman Rockwell-like upbringing. He came from a broken family and was living with an older cousin before the fire, Wright says. The cousin indirectly played a role in the fire: He bought the beer for the keg party at the ranch, Wright says, and has since been convicted of serving alcohol to minors.

Although the boy was a starting lineman for the Buffaloes and got lots of help from people in town, he showed signs that he was troubled. "He grew up deprived of love and understanding," Coppinger says. "In the classroom, he liked to get lots of attention. He caused minor problems."

Whatever the boy's problems, Wright says, he was not a menace. The prosecutor has talked several times with the boy and his cousin. "They are nice boys, soft-spoken, polite. I don't know why they twisted off like this. These are not low-down, mean kids from a gang or something."

Coppinger, a tall, balding, and quietly authoritative man who speaks with a soft drawl, has ministered to the two teenagers since their arrest. They both regret what they did, he says, and the boy from his congregation is deepening his religious faith. "He's so repentant. He poured his heart out to me and told me how sorry he was."

Now, the boy reads the Bible every day and helps other teens learn their math at the Brownwood State School, run by the Texas Youth Commission. He hopes to go on to college and a career in the ministry, Coppinger says. "He wanted to go to TYC. He wanted a visible demonstration that he had paid the price. When he writes his letters from TYC, he sounds just like the apostle Paul."

The sign outside Jean's Feed Barn boasts "home cookin'" and advertises the day's special, catfish steak. Inside, the restaurant's vestibule is a shrine to the Cross Plains Buffaloes, its walls festooned with yellowing newspaper clippings. A computer-generated banner over the door to the dining room declares: "The Big Bad Buffs Are Here To Stay."

Proprietor Jean Wilson recalls hearing news of the two boys' arrests. Her diners, she says, "were in a state of shock. They couldn't believe that those types of people would do something like that. Everybody has really suffered from it, thinking of how uncalled-for it was."

At that point, she says, virtually no one was ready to forgive the boys. "It's a close-knit family," she says of Cross Plains. "When something like this happens, it's devastating to the whole community." But she says that, over time, feelings of anger and resentment faded, and the incident began to serve as a unifying force. "It has brought the whole community together to a certain extent," she says. "People here are so close. What hurts one hurts the whole community."

After the blaze, Charlene Fleming visited the home of one of the boys. She recalls finding "just a crushed little boy who knew he had done something terrible." She, too, hopes for the best, but she recognizes that some things can never be made right. "They might make it," she says. "They might make a difference in someone else's life. But they've lost a lot of their youth."

If there's anyone with a firm claim on hope, it's Joe Coppinger. As a minister, he believes the gospel leaves him little choice. And he's an ardent believer in an "all things are possible" philosophy; the words of the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson are enshrined on a plaque in his study: "More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of."

"This was such an awful thing they did," Coppinger concedes. But "if something good doesn't come out of it, it'll be even more terrible. I do believe something good is coming out of this, and it'll be worth more than a burned school."

Vol. 18, Issue 11, Pages 32-37

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