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Arson damages iconic school

Garfield High cancels today's classes after fire guts the auditorium. Parts of the campus, built in 1925, sustain smoke, water damage.

May 21, 2007|Ashraf Khalil | Times Staff Writer

Garfield High School Principal Omar Del Cueto stood behind the yellow crime-scene tape Sunday and looked down from the balcony at the remnants of his school's auditorium after an early morning arson fire.

The roof had caved in, leaving only a lattice of heat-twisted girders. Most of the hundreds of seats were burned down to the frames, and only one of the eight ornate chandeliers remained. On the main auditorium floor, a grand piano stood relatively intact just a few feet from a pile of still-burning debris on the stage.

"You think of all the memories in there, all the kisses stolen after the lights went out," Del Cueto said of the 82-year-old building. "There's no way to bring this old girl back to her original grandeur."

The fire gutted the auditorium of the iconic East Los Angeles school made famous by math teacher Jaime Escalante, who inspired the film "Stand and Deliver."

As firefighters stamped out the last few hot spots and school district officials worked to assess the damage, an emotional Del Cueto, in his first year at Garfield, stepped through pools of water and fire-retardant foam and pondered a school that had lost something irretrievable.

"I'm not worried about the building. Money can fix anything," the 50-year-old principal said. "The emotional toll is really the biggest hurt.... This school is one of the anchors of East L.A."

Investigators said the fire was set by an arsonist about 7 a.m. and quickly consumed most of the auditorium. Firefighters were able to keep the flames from spreading, but the old school -- built in 1925 -- sustained extensive smoke and water damage.

None of the numerous murals for which the school is also known were directly damaged by the flames, but Del Cueto said he still had not assessed smoke or water damage to the school's painted walls.

Throughout the day, parents and students drifted toward the school, some to check on the status of today's classes, others just to confirm that the rumors of the fire were really true.

"Just seeing this gets me really sad," said Chris Zurita, a Garfield senior.

Today's classes have been canceled; officials hope to reopen the school Tuesday.

A joint team of investigators from the Los Angeles County sheriff's and fire departments is searching for possible arson suspects, said Deputy Ed Hernandez, a Sheriff's Department spokesman.

"It's a shame. I don't know what kind of person would do this," Del Cueto told students who had gathered across the street.

When a student asked if he could view the gutted auditorium, Del Cueto responded, "I don't want you to see at all what someone has done to us."

Then he reached for a lighter tone. "Sorry, but your records survived. That F from the ninth grade is still there."

Among the school administration's most immediate challenges will be getting the campus in condition to reopen for Garfield's approximately 5,000 students.

Del Cueto said the options include moving some students to alternative sites or running classes in outdoor tents. The principal also plans to have psychologists present at the school when it reopens to help traumatized students.

"We're going to try to normalize things as fast as possible," Del Cueto said.

Garfield students were set to begin statewide testing Tuesday. As of Sunday evening, alternative testing plans had not yet been devised.

As he toured the school grounds, stepping over fire hoses, Del Cueto found a silver lining just a few feet away from the auditorium's side door.

A large, gray natural gas main sat underneath an outdoor staircase. If the fire had reached it, he said, "It would have left a crater."

ashraf.khalil@latimes.com

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