One year ago, the Kilbuck campus in Bethel burned to the ground. The fire displaced two schools: the elementary Yup'ik immersion school, Ayaprun Elitnaurvik, and the alternative boarding high school, Kuskokwim Learning Academy.
The Kilbuck building was a long, red structure housing both schools. Now Ayaprun is housed in BNC's Kipusvik building, and KLA is at Yuut Elitnaurviat, the regional workforce development organization.
Today we’re going to hear from Ayaprun and the community about that unexpected day and the year that’s followed.
Crow: It seemed we were going to have school that day. When we got there early that morning, there was just a little smoke. There was still no flame.
My name is Sam Crow. I’m the principal of Ayaprun Elitnaurvik.
We were in contact, of course, with the superintendent Dan Walker, and we got called up to his office. And as we sat there making a plan to have school, the flames started. I mean, they were leaping up into the sky, and we were looking out the window.
MacArthur: The fire started around 3:00 a.m. on November 3, 2015. At first, it was just a bit of smoke coming from the insulation in the sewer pipes. At 7:00 a.m., most people thought school was still happening, but by 8:00 a.m., everything changed. Orange flames shot from the doors and windows, black smoke filled the sky, and pieces of debris flew above like ravens. School was never going to happen in that building again. I was there at the site that morning, and so were many others.
MacArthur: Okay, so I’m looking at the school, and I see, there’s one, two, three, four, five firefighters standing next to a red fire truck, and then next to the school building, there’s smoke billowing out of all the doors, out of all the windows, thick, black smoke.
Person 1: It didn’t look that serious when it first started out. It was smoking pretty good. But it progressively got worse and worse.
Person 2: It started slow. Then it spread really, really fast.
Person 3: I assumed that it was a small fire and that they were going to take care of it, and then we would be back in the building really soon.
Person 4: I didn’t realize it was like this.
MacArthur: About 20 fire fighters, most of them volunteers, doused the flames. Police set up a perimeter, and city trucks hauled continuous tanks of water to the scene.
Onlookers lined the street. Some were crying, some hugging, some videoing. Most were just staring in disbelief at the growing flames, that at one point shot in the sky like a tornado, at the shock of the event, and at watching a part of Bethel disappear.
Person 5: This is part of the previous Bethel, a different culture, a different time. So it’s just saying that that time is gone.
Person 6: It was such an old building. It was here since the '60s.
Person 7: My whole family went to school here: my parents, all my aunts and uncles.
Person 8: Both my kids went here, and my wife taught here, and I went here, and my mom and dad taught here. This used to be the whole school in Bethel before there was a high school. So when we got here, this was it.
Person 9: Huge amount of memories going up in smoke right now.
MacArthur: By 10:00 a.m., the immersion school was one giant flame and spreading to the KLA high school. To contain the fire, backhoes tore the building in half. The break saved the library and the school’s artifact collection. All the classrooms, however, were lost.
Person 10: There’s my sixth grade classroom right there. They’re tearing it down right now.
Person 11: It’s very dramatic to see backhoes destroying one side to try to save the other part of the building.
Person 12: My classroom is already gone.
MacArthur: By 6:00 p.m., after approximately 14 hours of crews working non-stop to suppress the flames, the fire was contained. All the Ayaprun classrooms were charred rubble, and everything inside them, all the original Yup’ik teaching material the teachers had developed by hand for decades, was gone.
Crow: The curriculum and the material we use, we can’t go into Barnes and Noble or order it off Amazon Prime. A lot of our material is self-made, because it’s in Yugtun, and so a lot of the things that we lost were things our teachers created: books, things they had made for their classroom, flashcards. We lost a lot of Yugtun things.
MacArthur: The night of the fire, Bethel City Council drafted a resolution asking Governor Bill Walker to declare a disaster emergency for the city and to provide assistance for response and recovery. Three days later, Governor Walker visited the still smoking site to meet with teachers, students, and city officials. He didn't have the power to declare a disaster and could only offer sympathy.
Governor Walker: I’m presented with a lot of dollars and cents, lot of calculations and costs and whatnot, and now I can put faces to these pages of numbers and students and teachers, so it puts the human side on the paper for me rather than just the numbers.
MacArthur: The state never declared an emergency, and no state resources helped the school district or the city recover. But starting the night of the fire, and continuing months afterwards, support flooded into Bethel from other sources. The community organized fundraisers, spaghetti dinners, supply drives. Schools across the region donated Yup’ik teaching materials. Pallets of notebooks, markers, books, all types of school supplies arrived from across the state and even the lower 48.
Crow: We had so many parents, and former parents, and adults in Bethel who didn’t even have kids coming to our school, coming and offering to help. There were fundraisers, people helped us move things. We had a big set up day. We had church groups come in. We were reminded what a supportive community we lived in.
MacArthur: Principal Crow says a year later, teachers are still rebuilding their Yup’ik materials.
In March, Ayaprun moved into the vacant grocery store in Bethel Native Corporation’s Kipusvik building. Crow says they’re still figuring out how to have school in a space intended for produce and milk. The biggest issue is dampening sound, and they’re still working out their morning and afternoon traffic patterns.
But inside, it looks like a school. Crayon drawings hang on the walls, desks line the classrooms, and winter coats hang from cubbies.
Crow doesn’t see a lingering effect from the fire in the students, but he does say now, when the school has any type of drill, the kids need a little extra reassurance that it isn’t real.
But through it all, he says the kids have been the strength carrying the school through the changes and giving them reason to carry on.
[Raise kids’ voices]
Crow: Well you can hear how school is going. There’s a lot of happy voices downstairs. The older kids are coming in from recess, so I guess if your question is are we moving along typically, well it sounds like we are. We had a morning full of instruction. We had a Friday morning showcase. We had a little lunch. Kids went outside for recess. And now we have a couple hours in the school day and in the week to fill with instruction.
[Fade kids’ voices]