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Water vote sparks mention of Flat Rock School fire

Apr 02, 2023

Commissioner Tom Koch mentions the disastrous Flat Rock School fire in 1957 en route to he and fellow city officials voting for a project to improve suppression capabilities for Franklin Elementary.

Memories of a tragic fire near Mount Airy were evoked before the city commissioners voted unanimously to join with Surry County officials in installing a new water line at Franklin Elementary School to increase protection there.

Although Commissioner Tom Koch specifically mentioned the February 1957 blaze at a campus on the opposite end of town in Flat Rock which claimed two lives, Thursday night's action elicited eerie similarities to another major fire at Franklin the same month.

It struck on the morning of Feb. 6, 1957, destroying the grade school portion of the longtime educational institution on South Franklin Road which then served elementary, middle and high school students, according to a Mount Airy News article published two days later.

"Mount Airy firemen were called to the scene, but without high-pressure water facilities, they soon found the task hopeless," it reported. "Within minutes the blaze was out of control and soon thereafter the building was a mass of flames."

No injuries resulted, which would not be the case 16 days later on Feb. 22, 1957, when Flat Rock School erupted in flames, causing the deaths of a student and a teacher trying to rescue him.

Fast-forwarding to today, Franklin Elementary has been vulnerable to a similar condition that existed in 1957 related to water availability for fire suppression. This involves a logistical issue.

Years ago, when municipal water service was supplied along South Franklin Road in front of the campus, the line and hydrants were installed on the west, opposite side of the roadway — across the street from the campus.

"Unfortunately, this arrangement has caused the hydrants to be located several hundred feet and across the road from major buildings," city Public Works Director Mitch Williams explained in a memo. "In addition, due to fire hose lay, the road has to be closed when there is a fire on the east side."

Such an incident occurred in August 2018, when nearby Faith Baptist Church on the same side as the school caught fire and burned due to an electrical problem.

Agreement with county

Thursday night's action by the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners is aimed at better protecting the school, which involved approval of an interlocal agreement with the Surry County commissioners.

The fire-improvement project calls for installing a new eight-inch line of about 650 feet and two fire hydrants on school property on the east side of South Franklin Road.

A map shows that the line will go from the existing one on the west side underneath that road, then extend perpendicularly from South Franklin along an access road through school grounds covering nearly the length of the campus.

The hydrants will be strategically placed at each end of the new water line to aid the project's purpose of increasing protection for the school and several adjoining properties.

Its $135,000 expense is being shared equally by the city and county, with a resolution approved Thursday night stating that the actual budget figure will be $142,000 to cover possible cost overruns.

"I think this is a really good thing to do," Commissioner Koch said Thursday night after referring to the Flat Rock fire in 1957.

"There is nothing more important than protecting our children," he added.

"I want to thank the county for bringing this to us," Mayor Jon Cawley said of how the project stemmed from concerns by Larry Johnson, a Surry commissioner who represents the Mount Airy District.

Cawley also seemed to address possible concerns from some citizens about the city helping to fund such an effort for a county campus.

"A lot of these students who go to Franklin Elementary School are city residents," the mayor said in reference to local school district boundaries not matching those of the municipality.

Commissioner Deborah Cochran pointed out Thursday night that some of those youths at Franklin might even grow up to become elected officials in Mount Airy.

As part of multiple votes Thursday night, the city commissioners awarded a contract for the water line project to Greenfield Utility Construction, which had submitted the low bid for the job of $135,000.

Two other construction firms also offered bids, including one of $159,250 from C.W. Cauley and Son Inc. of Patrick Springs, Virginia, and the other, a $285,939 proposal by Smith Rowe, LLC of Mount Airy.

Smith Rowe's bid was more than double that of Greenfield Utility Construction.

The latter was recommended for the project for its lowest bid and also the company's "excellent working relationship" with the city on past utility contracts, according to the public works director.

Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.

Agreement with county