KAHULUI - Knowing their classrooms had been burned by fire, Kahului Elementary School 3rd- and 4th-graders expressed sadness and shock, and then concern over a class fish named Speedy.
Not to worry, Principal Fern Markgraf assured them Monday morning during a gathering with the displaced students in the school cafeteria.
"We do have a survivor in the fire," Markgraf said, referring to the black-and-blue aquarium fish that had been in a classroom damaged but not gutted by the early Sunday morning blaze. "The fish is OK."
The Maui News / AMANDA COWAN photo
Kahului Elementary School 3rd-graders Dalton Honda-Kaupe, 9, (left) and Honeykien Lagran, 10, visit Speedy the fish Monday morning. Much to the relief of students, the fish survived in a classroom damaged but not gutted by a fire Sunday.
After giving a synopsis about the fire, Markgraf told the students they were welcome to talk to their counselors, teachers and even her, if they needed, about the fire and the effect it had on them.
"I feel shocked, and I feel sad," said 8-year-old Cheyenne Magno, a 3rd-grader in Amy Nakashima's classroom, one of three destroyed in the fire.
"I'm sad too, because all our things are burned," added Cheyenne's classmate, 10-year-old Yvonne Fulgencio.
Elizabeth Cumming, mom to 9-year-old Makana Nakihei in Nakashima's room, said she was worried for her son.
"Normal is good, but to have him displaced, I don't know," she said.
A fire that broke out after midnight Sunday destroyed three classrooms in "G" Building, causing approximately $450,000 in structure damage and at least $50,000 in loss of contents.
The cause of the fire remained under investigation Monday, said Capt. Paul Haake of the Maui Fire Department. He said it would take at least another week before fire officials could complete the investigation.
Approximately 75 3rd-graders were left without any paper, pencils and textbooks that had been consumed by the fire in their classrooms, while teachers lost lesson plans, laptops and school records.
A fourth classroom belonging to 3rd-grade teacher Skylar Decker sustained water and smoke damage. A fifth classroom belonging to 4th-grade teacher Coleen Jolly virtually went untouched by the fire, but the smoky smell inside it was unbearable, and she and her students also had to be moved to another room.
"The good thing was nobody was hurt," Markgraf told the students and staff Monday morning. "Yes, our textbooks are gone, our brand new dictionaries are gone, everything is gone, but these things can be replaced."
While leading students and school staff, Markgraf demonstrated compassion and confidence, and at one point, asked for a moment to pause as she tried to fight back tears.
"I haven't had time to cry," she said to a quiet and attentive assembly.
Markgraf said the Kahului School staff and residents in the community came by the campus Sunday after the fire to offer help with cleanup and a scramble to make classroom arrangements to accommodate all 125 students displaced by the fire.
"That's how important you are to all of us," Markgraf said, urging her students to place a hand over their hearts. "It is good in the heart to know how strong it is to have the aloha in our ohana."
Decker said his students arrived at school, appearing to take their water- and smoke-damaged room in stride yet wondering aloud about the well-being of their fish, Speedy. The small fish contained in a 10-gallon fish tank was located at the opposite side of a burned classroom and was taken out of Decker's room after the fire was extinguished around 4:30 a.m. Sunday.
"That's the question I keep getting asked: 'Is the fish OK? How's the fish?' " Decker said.
Vice Principal Stacy Bookland assumed the responsibility for getting Speedy out of the smoky classroom on Sunday morning. The fish was temporarily housed in Markgraf's office. Bookland said she hoped to give it back to Decker and his students soon.
"I think it'll bring a sense of normalcy to them," Bookland said.
Decker's class has been temporarily assigned to an area in the school library.
"I think you have to change your fish's name to Survivor," Markgraf told Decker's students. "Maybe it should be called Speedy Survivor."
Meanwhile, Jolly's class of 4th-graders has been placed in a multipurpose room used for Hawaiian studies, after-school tutoring and faculty meetings.
While her room was not burned, Jolly said the fire affected her more than she expected. "When I saw the building I didn't think I would get emotional, but I did get emotional," she said.
She said her students told her they felt lucky to have been spared any losses.
Jolly said she was especially touched on Sunday when volunteers showed up to help her and others with cleanup and the new classroom setups.
Jolly's 4th-graders wrote thank-you notes on Monday, expressing gratitude to the Maui Fire and Police departments, state Department of Education staff, and Kahului School staff and supporters.
"Without them, we would not be able to go to school and get our education to help us in life," 4th-grader Yeanne Leigh Sanchez wrote in her thank you note. "All of us are lucky that no one got hurt, even a fish named Speedy survived the fire.
"I am very thankful that my supplies are safe because all of those belongings would just be gone. Thank you everyone for being there to help Kahului School rebuild," she said. In response to a student question, Markgraf said the temporary classrooms that have been set up for the displaced classes will most likely stay in place until the end of the academic year in late May.
She urged students to carry on and "take it step by step." Markgraf said that while details of what's next for classrooms have yet to be decided, she hopes to "build back to what we had or something even better."
* Claudine San Nicolas can be reached at claudine @mauinews.com.