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Hartselle High Principal Jerry Reeves at the scene of the gym fire Saturday night.
Daily photos by John Godbey
Hartselle High Principal Jerry Reeves at the scene of the gym fire Saturday night.

Hartselle gym blaze believed to be arson

By Ronnie Thomas
and Holly Hollman
rthomas@decaturdaily.com · 340-2438

HARTSELLE — Dangling sideways from a chain on the old ticket booth’s wall at Hartselle High’s gym, a sign said “KEEP OUT” in orange letters.

But investigators are pointing toward an intruder or intruders igniting the blaze that broke out late Saturday in that area of the Pettey Center, Fire Chief Steve Shelton said Sunday.

“It appears that it is an arson,” Shelton said. “All doors were locked and chained, and the door to that room was locked from the inside. There had been no entry until we arrived. . . .

“We believe someone slipped (the ignition source) through one of the openings in the glass where the school once sold tickets and dropped it to the floor. The base of the fire was at floor level.”

The chief said he and his investigator, firefighter Phillip Kelso, worked until 4:30 Sunday morning. They returned to the scene at 9:30 to meet with a state fire marshal and worked past noon.

“We believe someone slipped (the ignition source) through one of the openings in the glass where the school once sold tickets and dropped it to the floor,” Shelton said. “The base of the fire was at floor level.”

Shelton said there was fuel in the area, such as paper, cardboard boxes, ball programs and tickets.

“There is only a light switch and one outlet in the room, but they were not the cause of the fire,” he said. “It had to be from another source. We took samples to send to the state forensics lab at Pelham, asking if they can identify any combustible or ignitable liquids.”

2 vehicles in area

In what could be a break in the investigation, Shelton said a resident came to the scene Sunday, saying there were two vehicles in the area at the time of the fire.

“One of them, a white Mustang with loud mufflers, stopped in front of his house,” Shelton said. “He got up to see what it was and looked out the window just as he heard sirens. The car pulled off, and he noticed a white Chevy pickup already moving up the street. He couldn’t tell how many were in either vehicle because of dark tinted windows.”

And Saturday night, Comer Street resident Eric Kerekes said he heard loud bangs around 11:15.

“It sounded like something hitting a steel door,” Kerekes said.

He looked out his window and saw only a lone car in a school parking lot. The car was not close to the gym and was still there after firefighters responded.

“I didn’t see any anything else and went back to bed until I heard sirens,” he said.

Shelton said he could not put a dollar amount on damage to the facility but rated it “moderate.” He said there is fire, smoke and water damage to the ticket booth and entrance area and smoke damage through the complex.

The Pettey Center houses the gym, physical education classes and band. Officials named the center for J.C. Pettey, who coached football and basketball at the former Morgan County High School. He also was principal and later served two terms as Morgan County school superintendent. He once coached at Ryan and was former principal at Danville High.

Resident gave alarm

The gymnasium’s old ticket booth is thought to be where Saturday night’s fire started.
The gymnasium’s old ticket booth is thought to be where Saturday night’s fire started.
A woman who lives on Comer Street saw flames in the ticket booth Saturday around 11:15 p.m. and called authorities, Shelton said.

“Whoever the lady is, we’re grateful,” said Principal Jerry Reeves. “There’s no telling what would be left if she hadn’t seen it.”

Shelton said two engine companies, the aerial truck and about a dozen firefighters responded.

“There was a lot of smoke, and we could see flames through the ticket window glass about six feet high,” he said.

Indeed, it could have been worse. Shelton said also stored in the room were buffing pads to maintain the building and ignitable liquids.

“There were several gallons of floor cleaners and paint thinners,” he said, “but the fire never made it to that side of the room.” The room is 30 by 30 feet.

Soggy tiles littered the floor. A display case honoring Pettey and his wife appeared unharmed except for being in water.

Shelton said there was some confusion shortly after Hartselle police arrived as to whether someone might have entered the gym through a door.

“My folks had opened the exterior door to ventilate the gym area,” he said. “We didn’t confirm with police that doors around the outer part of the gym were locked and secured when we arrived. So from what police saw when they first went into that area, they would probably have believed that someone had broken in. My guys went to the far end of the gym to open the door and blow the smoke out the southeast corner of the building.”

Shelton said officials cordoned off the damaged area because some of the ceiling had fallen. He said Reeves had a crew in the gym Sunday, cleaning and mopping so students can get to and from the gym without a delay in classes.

Reeves said the school renovated the gym in 1980 and added the ticket booth, entranceway, bandroom and other areas at that time.

Shelton said that basically there were six openings in the three windows that served as ticket booths, the “round hole where a customer could speak and smaller openings at the bottom of each window where you passed money for tickets. The openings at the top are large enough to get an arm through, up to your shoulder. So it is easy to pass something through there.”

Shelton said the openings were not covered.

“I look for that to change,” he said. “I believe the school will either close them or perhaps take those windows out and put solid windows in.”

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