A bored teenage student inadvertently caused chaos on a fateful Tuesday evening 30 years ago.

Reports from The News Herald in the spring of 1987 tell the story of the now infamous gas explosion that destroyed Salem Junior High School on March 17 of that year.

The school was part of a campus of buildings that included two elementary school facilities, a separate building housing the gymnasium and a storage trailer. It was built in 1931 and served as the home of Salem High School until Freedom High School was completed in 1973, according to Laurie Johnston, the NC Room curator at the Burke County Public Library. After that, it served as a junior high school.

More than 300 students, parents, teachers and coaches were in the gym focused on a basketball game around 7:30 p.m. when they heard a loud boom that shook the building and broke some windows.

Those who ran out of the gym were greeted with the sight of the junior high building, situated about 50 feet away, fully engulfed in flames.

Miraculously, no one was injured in the explosion, though many of the cars parked nearby were damaged by shrapnel from the building. The blast blew out the windows in the adjacent old Salem Elementary School building and was heard for miles around.

More than 75 firefighters from 15 different county and city units arrived to fight the blaze. Their efforts were complicated by electrical power lines that were blown loose from the building during the explosion. Workers from the electric utility company had to come out and cut off power to the lines.

Four tankers from county fire departments made repeated trips to a well located at Morganton Dye and Finishing Company to load up with water to fight the fire, which completely consumed the school.

Five fire trucks and more than a dozen firefighters remained on the scene throughout the night to fully extinguish the blaze. There was nothing left of the three-story, mostly wooden structure except portions of the exterior walls. More than 25,000 square feet of educational space literally went up in smoke overnight.

Damage to the building was estimated at $1.5 million, with loss of contents valued at $500,000. Damage to the elementary school building was estimated at $75,000.

School officials called on federal explosion experts from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to investigate the cause of the blast while they scrambled to figure out what to do with the now displaced student body of about 450 youths.

The Burke County School Board held an emergency meeting two days after the explosion to discuss their options while investigators sifted through ashes and rubble.

Eventually, ATF officials determined that a still unnamed male student had climbed on a shed roof where two 100-pound propane tanks were being stored while waiting for his parents to pick him up that afternoon. They said he fiddled with the valve on one of the tanks out of boredom and inadvertently left it open.

The tank was hooked up to a line that was believed by everyone to be plugged, but in fact, was still open and fed into a former science lab on the second floor of the school, which had since been turned into a teacher’s lounge. Gas flooded the room and ignited later that evening when a solenoid in a soft drink vending machine in the lounge gave off a spark.

Since it was an accident, no charges were filed against the student. If officials had determined he acted with criminal intent, he could have faced up to 30 years in prison.

The school system, led by SJHS principal Ernest “Nick” Jenkins and Burke County Public Schools Superintendent Jim Wilson, as well as the BCPS board, decided first of all to fast-track the construction of Liberty Middle School, which was in the planning stages at the time. Three different middle schools were slated to be built over the next several years to consolidate school populations.

In the intervening two years, the North Carolina School for the Deaf, led by Dr. Rance Henderson, opened its doors to welcome the students from SJHS. The students missed about two weeks of school before relocating to NCSD. They took classes in portions of Hoey Hall and Hoffmeyer Hall. Athletic activities were still held at the Salem campus.

A lot of the students’ grades that were recorded before the explosion were destroyed, so a lot of the classes that first semester were put on a pass/fail system.

The News Herald at the time served as a collection point for the community to drop off school supplies and books to replace the school’s library.

“We were all Salem people,” said Todd Huffman, a witness to the explosion. “That was our school. I’ll never forget it as long as I live.”

Tammie Gercken can be reached at tgercken@morganton.com.

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