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Suspicious overnight fire destroys Port Coquitlam elementary school

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Fire heavily damaged an elementary school in Port Coquitlam overnight, and police say the incident is suspicious.

Police and firefighters were called to a structure fire at Hazel Trembath Elementary School around 3:15 a.m. Saturday, Coquitlam RCMP said in a statement.

"The fire had fully engulfed the school and is believed to be suspicious," the statement reads, adding that the school was unoccupied at the time and there are no reports of injuries.

By mid-morning Saturday, smoke could still be seen rising from the building, much of which had been destroyed.

"The fire was quite difficult to fight because there was a lot of void spaces in the attic, so crews had a real difficult time getting up into the attic to fight the fire,” said Mike Patrick, deputy chief of the Port Coquitlam Fire and Rescue Service.

Nearly 30 firefighters were called to help battle the massive blaze, and crews remained at the scene throughout the day.

By Saturday evening, Mounties were warning of "potentially hazardous air quality" and urging the public to stay away from the school site.

“There’s definitely going to be a lot of impacted families that are going to be quite devastated. This school has been here for decades,” Patrick said. 

DEVASTATION 'SURREAL'

A crowd of people gathered to take in the sight, with some calling the destruction "surreal."

"(I am) a bit happy that it wasn't yesterday, and there was no one in the school when it happened,” said Nick Kalgamova, a Grade 4 student.

He and his mother watched as the smoke engulfed his school.

“We were very upset, this is our school, our community, our teachers,” said his mother, Oksana. “This is about community, we are a family here.”

The flames broke out sometime before 3:15 a.m. Saturday and soon engulfed the whole school. (@CityofPoCo/X)

Port Coquitlam Mayor Brad West was among those shocked and saddened by the fire's devastation.

"It’s absolutely heartbreaking," West told CTV News.

"I went to this school. I was here form kindergarten to Grade 5 and my son was going to Grade 1 here. It’s just an incredibly special school.”

 According to community members, the school is one of the oldest in the district. It also housed a daycare.

PLANS FOR NEXT WEEK

School District 43, which serves the Tri-Cities, Anmore and Belcarra, held a meeting for the Hazel Trembath school community at 5 p.m. Saturday to discuss the situation and share plans for what happens next.

"In the short term, students from Hazel Trembath will be bussed to Winslow Centre, a former SD43 school that has been used recently as a district facility, and as temporary home after another school fire a couple years ago," the district said in an emailed statement as the meeting was ongoing at Pitt River Middle School.

The Winslow Centre will be able to accommodate all 10 divisions of students and staff from Hazel Trembath, the district said, adding that it "can be operational very quickly."

"We know after a trauma like this that it is important to keep this school community together so that they can help heal and support one another," the district said.

While the Winslow Centre will not be ready by Monday, the district said it has already begun preparing the site, with the hope that students will be able to attend by "mid-week."

"Families should look for communication from their school for specific directions," the district said.

Earlier in the day, school board chair Michael Thomas called the planning process for the coming week "an all hands on deck situation."

In the long term, the school district said it is "considering all options."

The SD43 Foundation will be setting up a special fund for monetary donations to support the Hazel Trembath recovery, the district said, adding that the City of Port Coquitlam would consider setting up a location for receiving physical donations.

In a statement to CTV News, the Ministry of Education and Child Care said it’s been working closely with SD 43 leadership since the fire was reported.

West pledged "the full support of the city" and its resources to help the school community.

"What I’ve said is that the city will move heaven and earth on permitting on anything that’s within the city’s purview,” he said.

Port Coquitlam City Hall was illuminated in the school's colours Saturday night in a show of support.

By mid-morning Saturday, smoke could still be seen rising from the building, much of which had been destroyed. (@CityofPoCo/X)

WITNESSES SOUGHT

In the meantime, RCMP are asking the public for help with their investigation. 

“We are asking anyone who may have video surveillance in the area of Hazel Trembath Elementary School around the time of the fire to contact our investigators,” said Cpl. Alexa Hodgins, in the release.

“Police are also looking to speak with anyone who may have been in the area between the late evening of October 13, 2023 and the early morning of October 14, 2023.”

Anyone with information should call Coquitlam RCMP at 604-945-1550 and cite file number 2023-27725, police said.

With files from CTV News Vancouver's Isabella Zavarise. 

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