25 years later, firefighters recall grueling day dousing Prairie Elementary blaze

The window and door from the original building facing Mission Road serve as a reminder of the damage the fire did.
The window and door from the original building facing Mission Road serve as a reminder of the damage the fire did.

Jeff Scott had only been a volunteer with the Merriam Fire Department for a few months the night of July 28, 1990. He and his wife were attending a wedding reception at the American Legion Hall on 75th Street in Overland Park when his pager went off.

“I saw I was being called in, and I looked and my wife and said, ‘Okay, let’s go,'” he remembers.

He rushed into the station and hopped on a ladder truck heading to 6642 Mission Road. About an hour earlier, at 8:12 p.m., a man had called the fire department with a report of smoke coming from the Prairie Elementary School roof. The school building, which had originally been built in 1936, had been hit by lightning as powerful storms moved through the region.

When Scott, who is now Deputy Fire Chief with Consolidated Fire District No. 2, arrived at the scene, the blaze was still contained in the attic of the building.

“You never believe how big it could be when you first pull up,” Scott remembers. “You think, we can knock this out.”

Instead, the blaze gained massive strength in the old attic, eventually spreading throughout the school into a powerful conflagration that caused a total loss — and one of the most memorable and challenging nights in many local firefighters’ careers.

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CFD2 Capt. Brian Spini, then a new firefighter with the department, was one of the first responders on the scene. When he arrived, there was smoke coming out of the eaves on the 67th Street side of the building, but no visible flames.

“Our captain told us to make entry,” he recalls. “I remember seeing that Kansas state seal in stained glass as you walked in.”

When Spini and his fellow firefighters got inside the building, they located the fire in the attic and set about cutting a hole in the roof to vent the area. By that point, however, the fire had built a head of steam.

“The flames started shooting up in the air, it seemed like 50, maybe even 100 feet,” he said. “It was so hot that the rubber on the nozzle was on fire – and that was with flowing water. That attic was holding more fire than it was showing, and the way the building was built, it just spread.”

A neighborhood resident captured much of the action from that night on a 30-minute video that’s posted on YouTube. The shooting flames are visible in the first couple minutes of the video:

The following hours would challenge firefighters’ stamina, with crews from CFD2, Merriam, Overland Park, Kansas City, Kan., Kansas City, Mo., Shawnee and Leawood all working together to quell the blaze.

It wasn’t until 5:48 a.m. that crews officially called the fire out.

“That was just a long, long night of chasing that fire around the building,” Scott said. “You really couldn’t believe how big the fire was. As a new firefighter, that was pretty eye opening.”

Spini and Scott share the memory of being completely physically drained at the end of the shift.

“After the fire was out, our captain asked us to do some shoveling, and I had to tell him I literally physically couldn’t do it,” Spini said. “I was totally spent.”

Thankfully, no one was injured in the blaze, but it did send Prairie Elementary families and the Shawnee Mission School District into action trying accommodate the hundreds of kids who had been set to start classes in the gutted building less than a month later.

The district moved Prairie students to the Old Mission Elementary building in Roeland Park, where they attended class until the new Prairie building was dedicated on Sept. 26, 1993.

To this day, Scott says, the fire is one of the most memorable nights of his career.

“The thing you really remember is how well everybody was working together – firefighters from all these different departments,” he said. “For most of us, this is always going to rank as one of the biggest ones we’ve been on.”