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Fire destroys school classroom


© St. Petersburg Times, published June 8, 2000

GULFPORT -- The last day of school in Pinellas County started at 4:30 a.m. at Boca Ciega High School where a fire set by an arsonist destroyed a portable classroom valued at $35,000.

Because of the early hour, no students were on the campus, 924 58th St. S. No injuries were reported.

Principal Barbara Paonessa said quick response by Gulfport police and fire units with aid from St. Petersburg and South Pasadena prevented the fire from spreading to 17 other portable units. "They are all connected by a wood walk," she said.

Paonessa said the language arts classroom was filled with the usual school materials, such as computer, television and a lot of textbooks. "It was a significant loss, no question about it."

Gulfport Fire Chief Brian Brooks said the fire "definitely was arson. It was a deliberately set fire." He declined to say how the fire was set and said Wednesday afternoon that police had leads but no suspects.

The chief said his department is working with Gulfport police and the state fire marshal to find whoever set the fire. "It's high profile, a school-type thing."

Brooks said Scout the Arson Dog sniffed out several spots where material to feed a fire could have been used. Those have been sent to the lab.

Scout, a 21-month-old yellow Labrador, has worked about 38 fires throughout Pinellas County since January, said his handler Jim Fletcher of Palm Harbor Fire Rescue. In those, arrests have been made in about 21, Fletcher said.

Some contents in the classroom were salvaged. "The grade book was on the desk, and it was saved," Brooks said.

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