"Rising Above the Ashes" The Erath Middle School Fire (March 7, 2000)
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Expectations were running high for the Mardi Gras 2000 holiday, when tragedy struck Erath, before the break of dawn. The Erath Middle School sign perched before the school read... "No School March 6, 7, 8... Happy Mardi Gras." However, instead of a joyous celebration, that day will be remembered as a day that rendered shock in that small town. A day etched as a burning memory in the hearts and minds of residents and area firefighters. Fortunately, the fire that morning didn't cost Erath any lives, however a sense of loss did hang over the community.

 

During the early morning hours of March 7, 2000, the town of Erath woke to the sounds of blaring sirens, as fire broke out at Erath Middle School. Neighbor Todd Dore was awakened by loud popping sounds and reported the fire around 3:30 A.M. Before the morning light of sunrise broke, a number of stunned residents watched silently, as fire engulfed the school. Courageous firefighters joined the Erath Fire Department (from Meaux, Nunez, Indian Bayou, Maurice, Seventh Ward, Abbeville, Henry, Leblanc and two Iberia Parish districts), to extinguish the blaze. EMS Principal Ebrar Reaux, Assistant Principal Matael Jordan, Erath Middle School Educators and School Board Members Carroll "Bubba" Leblanc and Daleon Primeaux, stood numbly staring at bright flames consuming the building and contents. With tear stained faces, many were mesmerized by the tragedy of losing a community landmark.

 

As a predominately Catholic community, many residents attended the Ash Wednesday services the following day. Pastor at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church, Father Wayne Duet, greeted many parishioners at the services throughout the day. With the school located directly in front of the Catholic Church and Rectory, the Erath priest along with Vermilion Parish Superintendent Dan Dartez and Assistant Superintendent Cliff Alleman, witnessed the flames attack the school. During his homily which began the Lenten Season, Duet stated, that while people evaluated damages after the fire, one person commented that the "pile of ashes across the street, sadly gave new meaning to the phrase Ash Wednesday." Rising above the ashes as a community, was the central theme of the service that day. Although still numb, the realization of the necessary path to be traveled, was taking root. That long journey would entail tremendous change, sacrifice, and the hard work of an entire community. Rebuilding a school would be a huge task, but school officials and Erath citizens believed that with dedication and vision, obstacles could be overcome.

 

As with any school, a unique legacy emerges, The beginning of education in the Erath area began in 1877.  Although Erath was not yet established until the 1890's, two schools emerged around the Erath/Henry area in the S .tatter part of the nineteenth century, It began with a School Board Meeting on August 10, 1877; when schools were authorized in all wards of Vermilion Parish, Although Erath wasn't designated a town yet, two schools were established along the edges of the Erath community. One was located at the residence of Minos C Broussard; which was located about two miles from what is now Erath. The other was located in the Henry community.  With the settlement of the railroad around 1893, education became important to families in the village of Erath, Dr. Joe Kibbe, Semar Broussard; Pierre Ubal Leblanc, Telesphor Nunez; Frank Williams and many others, valued the opportunities of a good education. So, Dr. Joe Kibbe, with the support of town founder August Erath, Ollie J Moss and others, petitioned the School Board for a school to be established in the area. The School Board authorized a plan and a small schoolhouse was established in the area. The first school house was built at the north end of Kibbe Street in the early 1890's. By the turn of the twentieth century, housing students began posing problems and the second school emerged. Built in 1903, a new two story structure was constructed and Erath’s second school was born.  In the early 1920's, school enrollment was still on the rise, so decisions were made to construct the third Erath School. With the generous donation of land by Vernon Caldwell a new three story school opened in 1923 on the corner of Leblanc Street and Broadway. The new school housed grades one through eleven. The educators which held the post of Principal during the years from 1893 until the latter part of the forties were: Mr. LaFleur, Raphael Broussard; Alphe Hebert, Gerald Fahay and Bert Webb.

 

During the mid fifties, planning began for a new elementary building, Built directly in front of the three story school, the Erath Elementary School Building emerged The three story school was torn down later. The new building opened in 1957. All Erath children in grades 1 through 8 were housed in the new structure however was still considered to be a part of the Erath High School Plant. By 1972, more changes occurred. Due to shortage space, grades one through three were relocated at Dozier Elementary, the abandoned African American School, which closed when integration occurred. Dozier Elementary then became a feeder school for Erath High School, which now involved grades 4-12. The elementary section housed grades four through eight. During that era, Henry Bernard and Robert Segura served consecutively as Principals of Erath High School, with the help of Assistant Principals Charles Bienvenu and then Sterling "T-Cap" Menard. In 1984, Erath Elementary became an independent feeder school for Erath High. Donald Primeaux was named the first Erath Elementary Principal. Primeaux remained until 1989. Later, Erath Elementary was renamed Erath Middle School. Ebrar Reaux became Principal at EMS in 1989. In 1991, Mrs. Matael Jordan was named the first EMS Assistant Principal.

Destructive flames brought the face of change to Erath that day. However, healing began as donations, hard work and emotional support were offered from throughout Vermilion Parish. Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church CCD buildings were generously offered to be used as temporary classrooms. So, a path was paved to begin the journey. With a spirit of pride and compassion, the community united quickly, and despite the odds. Erath Middle students were back in classrooms the following Monday.

 

With the State mandated L.E.A.P Tests scheduled to be taken by fourth and eighth graders on Monday, March 13th, students returned to different surroundings, with tension mounting in their hearts. Although the L.E.A.P. Tests were burnt in the fire. just a two day delay was set in place. But despite the turmoil, EMS fourth and eighth grade teachers and students, managed to conduct the mandatory state test. just one week following the fire.

 

Tragedy often breeds change, turmoil and controversy, however despite the problems solutions evolved. With 10,880 square feet of the building damaged, everyone knew the journey back would be a difficult one. A number of changes occurred during the past year. The Church owned CCD buildings at Dozier Elementary, were bought and remodeled for fourth grade classrooms. Additional rooms were also built to accommodate all of the fourth grade students, who are now part of Dozier Elementary's student body. Erath Middle students in grades five, six, seven and eight were divided between the salvageable EMS classrooms and Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church's CCD buildings. In November of 2000, each of the four remaining grade levels were back on Erath Middle School's campus. With a cost of approximately 1.8 million dollars, the school clean up, renovations and rebuilding is close to completion.

 

Through tedious struggles and frustrating circumstances, Erath Middle School Principal Ebrar Reaux, Assistant Principal Matael Jordan. School Officials, and the community, merged and steadily faced adversity head on. With the students now relocated in EMS buildings, the final phase of construction will begin on the school office, several classrooms (between EMS and Dozier Elementary). a teacher's lounge and workroom. With a sense of pride, Erath Middle School continued to move toward the future, despite overwhelming obstacles. Donations totaling over $25,000 helped the school begin their journey home. Many believe that the educational legacy which began in the latter portion of the nineteenth century remains steadfast in Erath. It is a legacy of determination, courage and perseverance.

 

In the year 2000, many Erath residents stood numbly gazing at the ash debris of the forty three year old school. Charred remains left unsettled hearts in town residents. Heartfelt messages echoed from the chaos. One resident tearfully stated. "It was just a building, but so many of our lifelong friendships began there." A landmark in the community was gone however, not soon forgotten. Upon completion of the elementary building in 1957, a large dedication bronze plaque was placed near the school office. After the fire, a tiny remnant of that large plaque was found. The remaining piece says," Erected in 1957." Although small, it represents a piece of history that stood on the comer of Broadway and Leblanc Street. Fortunately heartwarming memories remain preserved in the hearts of those who walked through the halls of Erath Middle School. The tragedy of the EMS fire will always be a burning memory that shook Erath at the turn of the new century. That blaze brought tremendous challenges to Erath, however, the fire that fuels the human spirit is one not easily extinguished. That steadfast spirit moved on, to not only face those challenges, but conquer problems as well. With a necessary path to travel, a community rallied to transcend obstacles that plagued their school system. Unity, hard work and a courageous spirit helped this school triumph over their untimely tragedy. In short, Erath Middle School did indeed "rise above those ashes"

Spirit of Erath Articles (Keys to the Past Series)

Written by Stacy Bodin, Erath's 100th Anniversary Erath Centennial Historian (1999)

A Special Thank You goes out to Attorney Warren Perrin;
 the Acadian Museum in Erath;
Kermit Bouillion;
Curney Dronet, (Erath Author);
the Abbeville Meridional (Local Newspaper);
(The late) Clement Bourgeois Jr., (Erath Historian);
John LeBlanc (Town Official);
The 1999 Centennial President Jackie Vincent;
Robert Vincent (Acadiana Museum Director);
and my parents Larson "Cap" and Gertie Hebert Bodin
who assisted me in my research in this project.

The articles presented in memory of
Relie LeBlanc III
whose enthusiasm and love of Erath
inspires me still today in my quest of
researching and writing about our community. 
His "Unity in the Community" motto
will forever remain in my heart.

Photo of LeBlanc is
Courtesy of Dickie Durr's Thrifty Way of Abbeville

Questions or comments?
Email Stacy Bodin

Erath Map (MapQuest)

Erath July 4th Celebration
The Acadian Museum in Erath, Louisiana

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