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Published in Print: November 1, 1998, as Fire Power

Fire Power

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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.

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."

In spite of the horror visited upon the school, not a day of class was missed. Home economics classes were transplanted to a hallway of the elementary school. Students learned 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 schools donated a three-room portable building, and many surrounding districts helped out with desks and supplies. Local businesses, like the Wal-Marts in Abilene and Brownwood, chipped in, too. Since there were no lockers, 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 tragedy 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 to sort out leads. They, too, had heard about the party, and, together with an ATF officer, Ed Duncan began nosing around. "We talked to the boys and interviewed a lot of kids at the party," he says. "We thought these boys were lying to us. After we confronted them, they admitted it." By mid-afternoon on Monday, both boys were under arrest.

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

Some people in town hinted that the boys had it in for the principal and 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 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 track record as a troublemaker before the fire. "I think this all stemmed from drugs and alcohol," he says.

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," he says, "We're thankful for that."

Joe Coppinger, who retired as a teacher at the end of last year to devote himself full time to his duties as pastor of the Cottonwood Baptist Church, knew the boy well. His 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 teen did not have such a Norman Rockwell-like upbringing. He came from a broken, dysfunctional family; according to Wright, the boy was living with an older cousin before the fire. 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."

"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."

Allen Wright,
District Attorney,
Callahan County

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 young boys 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."

Attitudes toward the boys in Cross Plains are mixed. Some people are ready to forgive, but others doubt that the boys have undergone anything like a Pauline conversion. They'll have to see it to believe it.

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 press clippings. A computer-generated banner over the door to the dining room proudly 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 explains. "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," Wilson believes. "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 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. 10, Issue 2, Pages 25-28

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