WEST WEBER — Suzanne Nopper spent the first three days of this school year getting to know her new third-grade class, making them feel at home in their West Weber Elementary School classroom and preparing them for a productive year.
On the Friday night after that third day in class, she got a call from a frantic co-worker.
“They said the school was on fire, and the fire was located in the general area of my classroom and another teacher’s room,” Nopper said. “They didn’t know the details. I drove to school as fast as I possibly could within the speed limit.”
Nopper and third-grade teacher Cathy Wall stood outside that night, behind the yellow police tape, waiting for word. Wall’s classroom was safe, except for water damage.
Nopper’s room took the hit, burning after faulty wiring in a length of downspout heat tape had sparked flames that ate into the rafters and spread through an empty area between classroom walls.
“I was pretty devastated,” Nopper said. “This will be my ninth year teaching, and I started here. This was my first classroom I started in.”
However, by the following Monday morning, Aug. 27, Nopper had a new room, filled with many of her old teaching tools and belongings, which were washed and treated to remove the smoke odor. Wall decorations and charts were donated by her fellow teachers, and students’ desks and their contents had been treated for smoke and moved into the new room.
Principal Mike Geilmann said the school custodians, the contracted disaster cleanup from ARS Restoration Specialists and a group of teachers from the school worked all weekend to dry out water-damaged rooms, and to reclaim what they could from Nopper’s room, then set her up in a vacant room.
“When students came in Monday morning, Suzanne met them at their old classroom, talked to them about what had happened, and introduced them to their new room with a lot of familiar items,” Geilmann said. “They started class with their own desks with their name tags, and with their own chairs, and with a lot of things that would have been on the wall in the other classroom.
“The kids are doing great, amazingly enough,” Geilmann said. “They are very resilient. They settled in immediately and started school.”
Geilmann said during the fire, everything went as well as it possibly could have. An alarm sounded, and the alarm company called him at home, where he was hosting a faculty party. The school sprinklers went off, controlling the fire and keeping it from growing while the fire department was on the way.
School custodian Eric Cottle arrived before the firefighters, so access doors were opened with keys rather than axes.
Once the fire was out, ARS crews sorted classroom contents for what was unharmed, what could be salvaged and what was ruined.
“They asked me what I needed that first night, and I took a camera,” Nopper said. “I wanted to start gathering several things, but I wasn’t thinking too clearly. The camera still works, and the memory card has pictures of all my students from this year and last year.
“I felt much better, knowing those memories were safe.”
ARS crews moved smoke- and fire-damaged items onto the school’s stage, and sealed doors so they could use a device that changes the nature of ash molecules, to remove the smoky smell.
Nopper returned Aug. 25, the Saturday following the fire.
“It was hard to watch her go through everything,” Geilmann said. “The loss really came in her personal materials, her books and supplies. She would open drawers and they would be filled with water.”
Nopper said crews saved more than she thought they could.
“I really wanted to make sure students desks and things inside were saved,” she said. “And they saved my filing cabinet with lesson plans and ideas. I was very grateful for that.”
Nopper said Geilmann was there to offer comfort and help, and third-grade teachers Julie Stephens and Wall took the lead in setting up a new classroom.
“They pulled that room together in a matter of hours,” Geilmann said.
The Weber School District has worked with business partners including the Internal Revenue Service to replace supplies for Nopper’s 18 students, and the district has promised to help in any way it can.
Nopper said she has been told her old classroom should be ready for her within a couple of weeks. The room she is in now was slated as a space for an additional first-grade teacher to move in.
“I can’t tell you how much I appreciate all the support everyone gave me — from parents, teachers, friends, the district and my principal. Everyone has been just offering to help with anything I need. I feel very blessed.”