Northern Ireland

Arvalee Special School 'devastated' by suspicious fire

The principal of a County Tyrone school which has been extensively damaged in a suspected arson attack has said 75% of the building has been "destroyed".

Firefighters were called to the blaze fire at Arvalee Special School in Omagh shortly after midnight.

The principal, Jonathan Gray, said the families of children who were due to start a new term at the school on Monday were "devastated" by the damage.

There are fears for the safety of the remaining structure on Deverney Road.

Police have confirmed they are treating the fire as suspicious and a specialist forensic team is examining the scene.

Mr Gray said: "The school itself is 75% destroyed by the fire. The resources that were prepared for the children starting on Monday have been destroyed, so we're gutted where that's concerned."

However, he said it "really warmed our hearts" when his staff were offered support from the pupils' parents and the wider community in Omagh.

'Distressing scene'

Some of the school's 103 pupils arrived at the gates with their families on Saturday morning, and many were visibly upset by the damage to the building.

Image caption The principal said 75% of the building has been "destroyed" by the fire

The Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service (NIFRS) was alerted to the blaze when an alarm sounded and they had to use a number of specialist appliances - including two aerial pumps - to tackle the flames.

NIFRS area commander, Trevor Ferguson, said up to 50 firefighters were needed to bring the fire under control.

"One section of all the classrooms has been completely gutted. We've managed to stop the spread to a rear section and to the assembly section and some offices.

"But for the pupils and indeed for the staff who are arriving here this morning it is a very, very distressing scene and our thoughts go out to them at what is a very, very difficult time for them," Mr Ferguson

The chair of Omagh District Council, Errol Thompson, whose nephew is a pupil at the school, was also at the scene overnight.

The DUP councillor said local people would be concerned, not only because of the damage to the building, but also by the loss of its expensive equipment.

"The community of Omagh have been through a lot over the years and we will knuckle down and we will get on with it, but that's not to lessen the shock and the impact of it all," he added.

The Education Minister, John O'Dowd, travelled to the school on Saturday morning and described it as a scene of "utter devastation".

He said he was "disturbed" by the fact that the fire was being treated as suspicious.

Image caption Firefighters worked throughout the night to bring the blaze under control

"The school caters for some of the most vulnerable children in our society and this fire will cause great distress just as the pupils are preparing to return for a new academic year."

Mr O'Dowd added: "Whilst I struggle to comprehend who might wish to do this to a special school, I would ask that if anyone has information on the blaze, they take it to the PSNI."

The minister had attended emergency meetings in an attempt to find alternative provision for the pupils.

Parents' meeting

In a statement, the Western Education and Library Board (WELB) thanked the emergency services for responding quickly and working "tirelessly to contain the fire".

It said its staff were working closely with the principal to make "every effort to ensure that suitable temporary accommodation is sourced for pupils and staff as soon as possible".

The WELB added it is in the process of arranging a meeting between Mr Gray and school staff on Monday 3 September, followed by a second meeting for parents the next day.

Arvalee Special School opened in September 2004, after the amalgamation of Heatherbank School and Cranny School.

It specialises in working with pupils aged three to 19 years of age who have moderate and severe learning difficulties.