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Kitchen fire shuts down Fresh Meadows school

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Classes were canceled for four days at St. Francis Preparatory High School this week after a suspicious fire broke out in the kitchen area of the school early Sunday morning, the same day that police said someone broke into the school and tampered with soda machines.

“There was definitely a break-in, and it was on the same night as the fire, but it is unclear if the people who broke in set the fire,” said Capt. Patrick Heaney of the 107th Precinct.

The fire was reported by Brother Mark Waldmann, a computer and social studies teacher who lives on the third floor of the building along with 11 other brothers, said Brother Leonard Conway, the principal of the school.

“Brother Mark smelled smoke and when he woke up the other brothers, they smelled it, too,” Conway said.

Firefighters arrived at the parochial school at 61-00 Francis Lewis Blvd. in Fresh Meadows at 8:04 a.m., five minutes after they were called, said a spokesman for the Fire Department. They then spent 10 minutes looking for the fire, and another six minutes putting it out.

“The fire was almost out by the time the Fire Department got there,” Conway said. “It was a small fire, mostly contained in the cafeteria’s manager’s office.”

Nevertheless, the blaze caused enough damage that it made the kitchen inoperable for several months, he said.

The cause of the fire was still being investigated, the FDNY spokesman said.

“The fire marshals and Police Department said it was suspicious because it looked like someone had attempted to get at the soda machines,” Conway said.

Though it was unclear whether the fire was an accident or an act of arson, the answering machine for the school said the school was closed “because of an act of vandalism.”

“There’s cameras all over the school, so it would be stupid if someone broke in,” said Krissie Pafitis, a senior from Bayside.

The school was completely closed Monday and Tuesday and opened to staff only Wednesday and Thursday. An abbreviated schedule of classes in which students would be let out at 1 p.m. was planned for Friday.

“It’s weird we don’t have school until Friday, but we’ll probably have to make up the days,” said senior Lisa Vulin from Flushing.

Students have been advised to bring their lunch to school because the cafeteria will not be open while workers clean soot and repair damages caused by smoke and water.

“The kitchen is probably out of commission for a few months,” Conway said.

St. Francis Preparatory, a three-story, private Catholic school, is attended by 2,750 ninth- through 12th-graders.

Reach reporter Tien-Shun Lee by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com, or call 229-0300, ext. 155.

Posted 7:25 pm, October 10, 2011
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