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NNSL Photo

Sifting through the remains of Joamie school. - Kathleen Lippa/NNSL photo

When the smoke clears

Investigators combing the wreckage of Joamie School

Kathleen Lippa
Northern News Services

Iqaluit (July 14/03) - Investigators have all but ruled out arson or vandalism in the Joamie School blaze and are focusing on possible electrical problems.

"We're limited for what was down there as an ignition source, and electrical was one of them," said Gerald Pickett, Nunavut's fire marshal.

Pickett said that from the evidence he has seen so far, it's unlikely youths playing under the school started the fire.

"There's no openings underneath where a kid could get in," he said. "It was filled last year and it's still filled now. There's no access underneath that school."

It would have to be "an awfully small kid," he said. "There's no breach in the crawl space walls where the fire originated."

Pickett said that the true cause of the Joamie fire may remain a mystery.

"We may never know exactly how that fire originated or what caused it," he said.

For Pickett, the investigation has been stressful, consuming all his time.

He is overseeing two groups of investigators from Ottawa, "long into the night, 10 p.m. And we're down meeting for breakfast and discussing things at 7, 8 a.m. It's long days."

Fire chief Cory Chegwyn said the department is testing water flow in the area to find out why fire fighters ran out of water in the middle of the blaze.

The school's sprinkler system has also been identified as a trouble spot.

"If it worked as expected that fire should never have developed to where it was. Picket said.

"Obviously there was something wrong because that fire progressed from the crawl space and migrated into the school."

Picket said the sprinkler system is tested every year. It was last tested last December and found to be in working order.

Damage to the school has been estimated at $10 million. None of the loss is covered by insurance.

As far as the students and teachers who went there are concerned, Joamie school was one of a kind.

But fire marshal Gerald Pickett says there are at least five other schools in Nunavut that are built exactly like Joamie was.

Pickett wants to see what, if anything, could have made such a destructive fire possible at Joamie.

"I'm interested in the other schools that we have out there that are identical to the one we lost here," he said.

"If there's something wrong in this one, it's probably wrong in the other ones as well. There is no point learning something if we don't address it."

By Thursday, almost a week after Joamie burned to the ground in a spectacular blaze, Pickett was also researching two other school fires that demolished schools in Panniqtuuq and Cambridge Bay in the last six years.

Mayor of Cambridge Bay, Keith Peterson watched his town's Illihavik high school burn down in 1998.

It wasn't replaced until August 2002. It cost Nunavut taxpayers $16 million.

"It was tough," Peterson said.

"But the community pulled together."