Delco school derailed by fire

The blaze, which was ruled arson, threw Penn Wood High into chaos, including plans for prom.

Posted: April 22, 2013

Friday was going to be a big day for the seniors of Penn Wood High School, the day they would get to buy prom tickets.

"All of us have been talking about prom since January," Sabreen Abbass, 17, said. "All of us had our passes to come down and buy our prom tickets. We all had our dresses."

Instead, she had a day off she didn't want. She and her friends will get to buy their prom tickets eventually, but they don't know when or where. A blaze early Thursday that officials have declared arson has barred them from their Lansdowne school, its walls charred and windows boarded.

"I almost cried just looking at it," Abbass said.

There have been a lot tears in the Penn Wood community, along with anger and confusion, as investigators probed who might be responsible for the fire, school officials worked out the details necessary to get students educated, and many wondered why someone would try to burn down the community school.

"It seems one person deliberately destroyed the dreams of 800 kids," said Diane Leahan, president of the board of directors of the William Penn School District.

Leahan said several nearby school districts and some municipalities were quick to offer their facilities and space to William Penn, a district where many residents are economically challenged.

But as of Sunday afternoon, district officials had decided high school classes would resume Wednesday at their own Cypress Street campus, which the district's freshmen and sophomores attend, with the upperclassmen's fire-damaged Green Avenue campus closed for the rest of the school year. Until the end of the school year, there will be split sessions at Cypress Street - juniors and seniors in the mornings and underclassmen in the afternoons.

"The big thing is getting these kids in school so they can graduate in June," Leahan said.

But much else was still unresolved.

The senior high's annual spring art show is always anticipated, and the school also enters pieces in a congressional-sponsored art contest in Washington. But because of fire, at least as of Friday, Leahan said it wasn't known where the art show would be held, whether the pieces could be sent to Washington in time, or whether any works were damaged in the fire.

On Friday, a fund-raiser to benefit the concert and jazz bands was held at the middle school. But the annual spring concert, always held at the senior high, was in limbo.

It will have to be held at some other school, but Jennifer Hoff, a school board member and mother of high schoolers, said there was another complication: Much of the equipment is in the senior high and it was unknown when they could get to it.

"As you can imagine, it's pretty complicated, and it's not fun," Hoff said.

One of her children, Jacob McCann, 15, a 10th grader, said the school was also going to have to work out where sports teams would practice and play. And, he said, his new schedule might cut into his dishwashing job on Fridays.

And, of course, there was that question on everyone's mind: Why?

"Some kids don't really understand someone's motive behind lighting a school on fire," he said.

Investigators are still seeking answers. It is believed the culprit or culprits broke a back-door window to get in. Delaware County District Attorney Jack Whelan, whose office is conducting the probe jointly with local police and the fire marshal and state police, said an accelerant he declined to identify was used to start fires in three locations on the first floor.

Lansdowne Police Chief Daniel Kortan said authorities also have video footage believed to show the arsonist, but given the darkness of the hour, "all you can tell is it's a person."

He said authorities were working to get the images enhanced.

Meanwhile, the students left school-less are trying to deal with their own feelings.

"It's very stressful on all of us," said Kassidi Mann, 16, a junior. "I don't know how to feel about the situation."

A member of the concert band, she said she had really been looking forward to being in the spring concert. "Everyone looks forward to it," she said.

And, she will take the SAT and her Advanced Placement American history exam in May. Now she doesn't know where.

"I think it will be uncomfortable because it's not the same environment we're used to," she said.

To Sabreen Abbass, it all still felt a bit unreal.

"But when I start thinking about it, it's devastating," she said.

"All we had was two months to go. All of us seniors were looking forward to graduating from the building," Abbass said. "When you're a freshman and a sophomore, all you think about is getting to the Green Avenue campus."

Now they have to learn to accept the possibility of never going back.


Contact Rita Giordano

at 610-313-8232, rgiordano@phillynews.com,

or follow on Twitter @ritagiordano.

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