- Associated Press - Saturday, June 20, 2015

ST. CLOUD, Minn. (AP) - If only the lightning had struck one of the many evergreen trees on the lot.

If only it hadn’t hit the former Roosevelt school, Bryan Brown thought recently.

After all, the building was old, but mechanically, it was in good shape, said Brown, the St. Cloud school district’s buildings and grounds supervisor. It had at least another five years in it.

If lightning had hit elsewhere, St. Cloud school district’s past year - and its agenda for the near future - would be dramatically different.

Instead, the lighting that struck the night of June 14, 2014, caused a fire that leveled the St. Cloud school district’s second-oldest building, and put in motion a series of events that challenged the district, its employees and the St. Cloud area.

No one was killed or hurt, but a school with about 95 years of history was lost, the St. Cloud Times (http://on.sctimes.com/1GPlxld ) reported. Its last decade was relatively quiet, with elementary classrooms being shuttered in 2003 along with two other schools.

But Roosevelt was still a fixture in the north side neighborhood and housed early childhood services. It also was home to the district’s welcome center and stood next to Roosevelt Boys & Girls Club.

“It was just a really empty feeling,” Carol Wellen said of the fire’s aftermath. She was the Roosevelt principal when the elementary closed, another emotional time. After the fire, all that nostalgia came flooding back. “You’ve been a part of this for so many years, and a part of the neighborhood.”

Bill Mund, who retired as St. Cloud fire chief in May after 12 years, said the Roosevelt fire certainly ranks as one of the most memorable of his career. It might not compare to the explosion and blaze in 2012 at the Verso Paper mill, which took more than a week to contain, but it had a huge impact, too.

“This was the only one I remember (that was) a fairly historic building in the city,” Mund said.

It meant something personal to him, too: Mund attended elementary school at Roosevelt. His mother still lives blocks away.

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Storms sometimes set off alarms in St. Cloud schools. On that night a year ago, Brown already had been called about another building’s alarm that turned out to be nothing.

Soaking wet, he went home to change. He got ready for his wife’s son’s graduation party. Friends came over. Then an alarm company representative called around 11:40 p.m. or so, as another round of storms was passing through the area.

“It was like, here we go again,” he said.

Brown instructed the alarm company representative to call the police, and if he was needed to give him a call back. He was expecting another false alarm.

“It wasn’t even two minutes, and the dispatcher called me back,” he said. There was a fire at that location. “It’s like, ‘I’m on my way!’ “

Even though it was pitch-black, Brown could see the smoke from Division Street and Cooper Avenue.

“I knew it was a big fire, and as I got closer, I could see all the lights … ‘Oh my goodness, what are we going to do?’ “

When Brown arrived, he learned from firefighters that the blaze started in the building’s back corner, and it was in the roof.

“They were working to get it out, and a couple hours went by and it’s still just burning,” he said. “There was a crawl space in there, and the wood was burning like crazy in there.

“It would almost seem like it would go out, and then it would flame right back up again,” Brown said.

The fire got a head start: Lightning struck the school about 8:30 p.m. The fire burned undetected for a few hours.

That night, Brown became one of the district’s public faces. St. Cloud Superintendent Willie Jett was out of town; so was Brown’s direct supervisor, Kevin Januszewski. Jett returned Brown’s call and made plans to be back in St. Cloud the next day.

Firefighters eventually decided to try to contain the fire and let it burn out on its own. Once again drenched, Brown went home around 4 a.m. He planned to take a shower, change into dry clothes and get some rest before he went back to the site.

About an hour went by, and Brown received another call: The firefighters needed him back on the scene at 6 a.m. He had to help the fire chief decide whether to tear down the school because crews couldn’t extinguish the fire.

“It’s like, OK, I’ve got to think about the safety of the fire department, I have to think about the neighbors around here - it’s still smoking like crazy. We need to get this out,” Brown said.

It was a practical and logical move, but it wasn’t made without emotion.

“The night of the fire and the next day, there was a lot of staff members coming by,” Brown said. “It was like, ‘What are we going to do?’ This was their home. This is where they spent most of their time.”

Once the crews started knocking Roosevelt down, it was clear the whole building had to go. Firefighters spent the whole day spraying down hot spots.

___

One of the big immediate decisions - whether to tear down the school - was over. There were many more to follow.

The students who were going to report to summer school the next week were moved to Discovery Community School. The school district started prepping Colts Academy in St. Joseph to house the early childhood program. The Young Learners program moved to Catholic Charities St. Cloud Children’s Home.

Colts Academy had been vacant for four years, so the district had 30 days to replace carpeting, install tile floors, repair the heating system, rewire the electrical system, paint the gyms, and the list goes on.

“We had people working around the clock,” Brown said.

There also was the Roosevelt cleanup, a process that proved to be more complicated when it was discovered that Roosevelt was a “hot” building because of the asbestos inside, although it wasn’t a threat to the neighborhood.

Some property could be salvaged. A lot of information was destroyed, including many students’ records.

Still, through the challenges, no one complained, Brown insisted. No one.

“It was the biggest unified process we’ve ever had,” he said. “Everybody worked extra hours, no matter what it was. They just knew it had to be done.”

___

Brown spent 23 years working in the district with relative anonymity as far as the public was concerned. The Roosevelt fire changed that - he became a regular media contact, and led reporters through the Roosevelt wreckage site.

The newfound exposure isn’t something Brown necessarily wants.

“I’d rather stay behind the scenes,” he said.

And Brown is quick to spread the credit - to others in his department, to Jett and Januszewski, and other district leaders.

Many people assumed deciding what to do with the aging Tech High School would monopolize most of the district’s time for the 2014-15 school year.

Roosevelt was a wild card no one had expected. And the district is still waiting for an insurance settlement.

But it’s not just about Tech’s future or where to put early childhood services; the district coordinates a multitude of projects, from regular maintenance to adding classrooms.

“It’s all a big wheel with cogs in it - it’s all coming together and has to fit together,” Brown said. “A lot of big decisions have to be made real soon, because you can’t just build a building overnight.”

The neighborhood can take heart: The school board has approved spending $2 million on construction at Roosevelt for the City Life and InnStep programs. The Boys & Girls Club broke ground in May on its new gym.

The district has a two-year deadline: Colts Academy is being sold, so early childhood services need to be out of that building, and into its new one, in 2017.

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Brown is living the biggest challenge of his professional career in the public eye. But he says he’s sure the district will deliver on its timetable.

“Not a doubt in my mind,” he said. “One way or another, we have to have a building up in two years.” He hopes the district can break ground next spring on a facility estimated to cost $25 million.

But Brown admits balancing all these projects is a challenge.

“Some days it’s like, how much more can we do?” he said. “But this district has put off a lot of the projects, a lot of things have been put off for years, and it’s just come to a head.”

Brown has confidence in the district’s leaders, his team and the community. He remembers fondly businesses that offered to donate anything the district needed right after the fire.

“They just wanted to help,” he said. “They weren’t asking anything in return. They wanted to help and support us.”

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Information from: St. Cloud Times, http://www.sctimes.com

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