The day my life changed - We rose from ashes after fire wrecked school in 20 minutes

18th June 2010 at 01:00
Head lost everything when arsonists struck - but blaze turned out to be a new beginning

I had a phone call at about two in the morning from a senior teacher who lived near the school. He said: "The school's on fire. It's pretty much gone." My first thought was that there was nothing I could do and it was going to have to wait until the morning. So I went back to bed. I couldn't sleep, though. My mind was racing with all the implications.

When I got there in the morning it was still smoking and there was twisted metal everywhere. Most of it was just rubble. It was almost completely flat. A three-storey block had just collapsed. On a very small scale, it must have been what the Twin Towers were like.

Altogether, about two thirds of the school had been destroyed. That included most of our specialist classrooms. So, with the exception of two science labs in a separate building, our science labs, our ICT labs, our library and resource centre, our art rooms and our technology rooms had all gone. Pretty much anywhere there was specialist equipment had gone. All the humanities rooms had burned down as well, plus our learning support area, our canteen and our kitchen. It was devastating.

My office had gone as well. Although I don't teach much now, I take assemblies and I have always written my own. About eight-and-a-half years of assemblies that I kept in exercise books in one of my cupboards was gone. I'm an English teacher, so all my resources were gone. A history teacher who had been in the profession for 30 years found that everything she had ever produced that she had kept had gone.

The fire brigade reckon the fire started soon after midnight in a bin in the staffroom. There was a fierce wind blowing and the fire just tore through the building. It was a 1970s building with false ceilings and the gaps were like wind tunnels, so once the fire got in those gaps it just whistled from one part of the building to another. The main building probably collapsed within about 20 minutes of the fire taking hold.

The police found a couple of fire extinguishers outside. A couple of former pupils had broken in and they probably started a fire then thought they had put it out and left the scene, only for it to flare up again. I never felt a huge amount of anger. Even during the court case I thought it was up to the court to decide what a fair sentence should be.

Our first priority was to organise temporary buildings so we could carry on teaching. We got Years 10 and 11 back into full-time lessons in 10 days and the rest of the school within six weeks. The fire happened in March and by October or November our thoughts were turning towards the new school building. It finally opened three years later, in September last year. We have come up with a fantastic building. The classrooms are all a decent size, the corridors are wide and spacious and there is a lot of natural light. It's brilliantly insulated, so it has been fantastically warm in the winter.

The building inspires the kids: we know that from talking to them. That is true for the staff as well. They say: "It's so nice coming to work in a place like this." It was a tragedy, but the school has bounced back remarkably well. It was probably the only way a school like Penyrheol could have got the facilities we have, although of course one would never wish it. We're happy now, but it was a lot of hard work for everybody.

Alan Tootill was talking to Mike Kielty. An 18-year-old man was sentenced to six years in jail for starting the fire at Penyrheol Comprehensive School in Swansea. Do you have an experience to share? Email

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