Last Thursday marked the 20th anniversary of a fire that destroyed the iconic Kriebel Hall on the campus of The Perkiomen School in Pennsburg. It was the largest assembly of emergency first responders ever amassed in the area. More than 250 volunteers and 50 trucks from more than 30 companies responded to the massive fire.
The day of the conflagration and the days immediately after it were a true test of the preparedness of local emergency services and a real-life exercise in disaster recovery for the institution. It was a test that came to the small community more than seven years before the horrors of Sept. 11, 2001 and forced everyone to take an earnest look at how they prepared for and would react to large-scale, emergency situations.
Since the Perkiomen Seminary opened in 1875, the school and many of its leaders played a prominent role in shaping the education, culture and history of the Upper Perkiomen Valley. For decades Perkiomen offered the only school above the ninth grade.
The original building, built by Charles Wieand, was a splendid three story Victorian structure with bright green shutters. Over the years, additions to the building hid most of its original Victorian beauty, but from the tracks of the old Perkiomen railroad, the magnificence of the original design could still be seen and enjoyed.
The building was named in honor of Rev. Oscar Schultz Kriebel, a strong community advocate and Perkiomen's headmaster from 1892 to 1932.
The first addition was to the front of the original building and the second one added a wing on each side of the newer front. In 1994, the building was used to house classrooms, offices, a lounge, chapel, student records and historical artifacts, as well as faculty and students – more than 80 of them.
Sunday, April 17, 1994 was a crisp spring day with gusty winds blowing throughout the region. It was almost 5:30 p.m. and most of the residents of Kriebel Hall had taken the one-block walk over to Parents Hall, the school's cafeteria, for dinner.
Prior to leaving for dinner, one faculty member discovered a fire in a storage closet on the fourth floor and the building's central alarms went off. The nightmare, that would take 16 months to recover from, began.
The volunteers of the Pennsburg Fire Company were occasional visitors to the large building. The group regularly received guided tours of the narrow hallways and labyrinths that were a part of Kriebel Hall's upper floors, to update their knowledge and familiarize themselves with pathways they may need to navigate someday in a dark and smoky environment with no lights or maps to guide their steps.
The first firefighters arrived within four minutes of the initial alarm and found the rear of the three-story structure ablaze. Heavy smoke was puffing through the windows of the upper floors of the adjacent addition.
Volunteers attacked the fire from the front of the building in an attempt to push it back onto the burning area and keep it from spreading further into the newer sections of Kriebel Hall. But the fire, fed by high winds, quickly spread through the eaves and rafters of the entire roof.
While volunteers battled the blaze, another crew of firefighters fought through intense heat and smoke inside the building to gather administrative and student records, valuable artwork and historical artifacts in an attempt to salvage as much as possible before the rear of the building, now totally engulfed in flames, collapsed under weakened, fire-ravaged beams. The voracious appetite of the flames had taken the original building and now wanted more.
Volunteers sped to save as much as they could in a deadly race against the spreading fire. The winner would not be determined by who crossed the finish line first, but by how many items were saved or destroyed. In this event, even a minor error could be fatal.
Then-Headmaster George Allison gathered up a group of faculty and staff members, students and others to cart the items from the yard in front of Kriebel Hall, where firefighters deposited the salvaged items, to an area where they would be safe.
The firestorm inside the building had conjured up winds with hurricane velocity and a fire that roared well in excess of 1,000 degrees. With each trip, the firestorm inside worsened.
Twelve firefighters suffered minor injuries while fighting a blaze they poured more than 1 million gallons of water onto. In addition to public water drawn from fire hydrants, the firefighters pumped water through 8,000 feet of hose, laid out along Route 663, from Philadelphia Suburban Water Company's Green Lane reservoir. The firefighters fought the unyielding fire well into the next morning. Some of them continued to respond over the next few days as "hot spots" erupted.
At its peak, the fire spewed flames more than 30 feet above the roof of the building. Smoke billowing from the building hung high over the area like a ceiling of thick fog and could be seen for several miles. Hundreds of spectators were drawn to the scene of the disaster. The fire was later reported to have started in an electrical ceiling ventilation fan.
Final estimates put the total loss around $9.7 million, but school officials would not let the devastation end on a sorrowful note. While the building was still burning, Headmaster Allison vowed, that "like the mythical bird Phoenix, Kriebel Hall would rise again from the ashes." It did.
Reflecting on the 20th anniversary of the fire in a recent letter, Allison writes, "I could write a book on how our students (boarding and day), teachers and staff came together and were heroic under a very difficult situation. It took 16 months to rebuild Kriebel Hall and during the time of rebuilding there are so many stories that need to be written. Perkiomen School would not be here today without their love, efforts and support."
While the fire was still burning, administrators and faculty notified all day parents and boarding parents in the United States to let them know that their children were safe.
With the loss of the entire building, it's hard to imagine that the students lost only one day of classes. Within one week of the disaster, four trailers containing portable classrooms were brought onto the campus and two more were brought in for business, development and alumni offices. The first floor of the Headmaster's House became the admission office for the next 16 months.
Regarding the immediate aftermath and the feelings of the students and faculty, Allison wrote that there was initial shock, but "the students and faculty were supportive of each other and were incredible during a difficult time."
During the morning of April 18, members of the local ministries and counselors from Montgomery County met with students and faculty in sessions that would last into June.
Then-Chairman of Perkiomen's Board of Trustees Bill Fritz called an executive meeting for Aril 22 in the conference room of the Schwenkfelder Library and Heritage Center. At that time, an architect (H2L2 from Philadelphia) and general contractor (Gordon Baver, Inc. of Pennsburg) were selected to lead the project to rebuild Kriebel Hall.
As it turns out, the original architectural drawings were in Allison's office and were saved during the salvage operation while the building was burning. Allison saw that the original architectural drawings had a cupola, but at the time the front section of Kriebel Hall was built, there was no money for it. However, the architects liked it and Allison made the decision that "this time Kriebel Hall would be built with a cupola."
In less than two years from the disaster, Kriebel Hall was back up and fully functioning.
According to current Headmaster Christopher Tompkins, the new building incorporates a sophisticated smoke and fire alarm system, fire suppression/sprinkler system, information network and security system, including keyless entry. Tomkins added, "Twenty years after the fire in Kriebel Hall, the building stands as the historic heart of the campus and an iconic structure for the borough and region."
Students start their day with Morning Meeting in the Mesnier Chapel. In addition to the chapel, the main floor houses the Offices of the Headmaster, Admissions, Summer Programs, Financial Aid, Business and Finance and Alumni and Development.
The ground floor is dedicated to student life with student lockers, lounges, a post office, the Center for College Counseling, The Learning Center and the Student Life office. Residential floors named for Perkiomen alumni Carlson, Spaatz and Schultz, accommodate 100 students and eight faculty apartments.
In 1994, when emergency preparedness and disaster planning and recovery were deemed as exercises for large, urban areas, the actions of The Perkiomen School and Pennsburg Fire Company showed that the size of the municipality doesn't matter when it comes to planning a response.
Twenty years later, Kriebel Hall is still the visual icon of Perkiomen's campus.