By Sam Stuefer
As flames and smoke filled up South Hall of Lincoln High School on Thursday, January 29th, students and staff evacuated the building and huddled together in the near-freezing winds to keep warm for about 30 minutes. This was the second time in the same day that the Links were forced to leave the building for a fire alarm. Both alarms were for actual fires.
The first fire was set in a trash can around 3rd period. That fire was spotted by school staff and extinguished before firefighters arrived. The cost of that damage was estimated at around $100.
The second fire was set to wrestling mats sitting by the South Gym and spotted by a staff member. The wrestling mats were district wrestling mats, so they were used all over Lincoln Public Schools, from middle to high schools. The fire had started near door 22, on the south side of LHS. Damage was done not only to the mats reserved in the area, but to the floor, ceiling and air duct, and door. This damage isn’t even added to the damage done by smoke. All the damage together for the second fire is estimated at $30,000.
“Some of it is labor of people who’d be on the job here anyway,” LHS Principal Dr. Mike Wortman, said of the cost of the damage.
Fire inspector Ken Hilger examined the areas and confirmed that both fires were intentional and started with a lighter (having a lighter on the property is against school policy). The extent of this crime would be considered first degree arson which includes anyone who intentionally sets a fire or explosion, damaging property when another person/other people are in the building. The crime of first degree arson is considered a Class II Felony.
School was released early that day, around 11 a.m. Many students were very happy to get an early release, though a lot of them ended up having to come back at 1 p.m. to gather their belongings.
The following day, Friday, January 30th, staff at Lincoln High received information about a 17-year-old student who was suspected to be responsible for the two fires. That day, he was taken to the office and questioned by police. They determined that he was, in fact, the instigator of the fires. He was arrested for two accounts of first degree arson and was taken to the juvenile detention center in Lincoln, Nebraska.
“It was a bad deal, that this happened,” Wortman said. “It was a crisis. It was an emergency. It was just not a pleasant thing.”
With an event like this, it is easy to lose touch with the people around you. Trust can be broken or people could be left wondering why. But that wasn’t the case when it came to Lincoln High.
“Conversely, it was amazing to see the Lincoln High Community come together in response to this event,” Associate Principal Mark Larson said. “We had staff, students, and parents bring credible reports that helped us find out who was responsible. In the end, it was another example of the close-knit community at Lincoln High coming together to care for each other.”
“I had a few calls from parents the next morning that basically were sharing information,” Wortman said. “They knew, or heard, or their kids had seen stuff on Facebook, and they just wanted to make sure someone knew that. And the way it turned out, we had about 30 people that contacted us and said they’d seen some stuff on Facebook. So we thanked them very much and said that we appreciate that because that’s the kind of information we needed.”
“In the whole scheme of things, there’s a lot of good that came from it [the fire],” Wortman said. “I think in some ways, it kind of pulled together the Lincoln High ‘family,’ so to speak…It kind of gave an opportunity for some people to say how much Lincoln High means to them and how proud they were.
“And, you know, one person did this,” Wortman added. “But there were at least 30 kids that felt strongly enough about it they told some adult…so there are way more people who want Lincoln High to look good and to be safe…”