A building that many residents in the Burke County town of Hildebran vowed to save was instead destroyed by fire Monday morning. The Hildebran High School has not been in use for decades, except for a few businesses that opened there but later moved.
The town council voted last year to tear the structure down, deeming it to be unsafe and too costly to renovate. That sparked a controversy that led to a lawsuit that is still under appeal in the courts.
Monday morning, though, any efforts to save the building became pointless. Fire broke out just after 5 a.m., likely in the basement, according to officials. By the time it was discovered and firefighters were on the scene, there were pockets of flames on several floors.
Units from across Burke County and surrounding counties responded, hoping to stop the flames quickly. Crews did make progress until the fire broke through the roof. Once that happened, the old high school could not be saved and the focus shifted to protecting a nearby gymnasium and the Town Hall next door.
"It's just so sad to look at," said Kim Carswell, a former student at the school.
Evelyn Newton, 89, tried to watch from a distance. She went to school there in the 1930s.
"I love that school," she said.
The cause of the fire is not known. There was some electricity hooked to the building, but investigators are just beginning their work. The State Bureau of Investigation is taking the lead along with the Burke County Fire Marshal's office. Officials said they expected the ATF to get involved as well.
Because of the controversy surrounding the building many onlookers said it would be important to find the facts.
"There needs to be a full-blown investigation," said Marty Smith, adding, "This is a piece of my history going up in flames."
Mayor Virginia Cooke, who was in favor of tearing down the building, said she was shocked and stunned by the fire. Some people who came to see what happened pointed to town hall as being responsible for the fire.
Cooke was escorted by a Burke County deputy after several people yelled threats at her, she said.
So far, there is no indication of what started the blaze and it could be days or longer before investigators have an idea. The floors in some sections of the three-story building collapsed onto each other and wound up in the basement. As a result, it could take some time for officials to find the exact point of origin.