Thieves set Port Alfred High School office alight

Classes were suspended at Port Alfred High School yesterday after thieves set fire to an office causing damage estimated to run into hundreds of thousands of rands.

Devastated headmaster Clive Pearson yesterday said although the fire was confined to a small section of the school, extensive smoke damage was caused to the rest of the building.

Trophies and memorabilia collected over the past 100 years as well as vital school records were destroyed.

Pearson said high school classes had been suspended until at least tomorrow to allow police to comb the gutted office for clues. He said the junior school, which was not damaged, would resume classes this morning.

During a visit to the school yesterday, the Daily Dispatch saw workers cleaning smoke-damaged rooms with community volunteers.

Experts were also examining CCTV footage that showed two men, with hooded jackets pulled over their heads to hide their identity, smashing in a back window and entering the office area at about 4am on Sunday.

The break-in occurred an hour after organisers of a barn dance in the nearby school hall packed up and left. A security company was called before they left to help activate a faulty burglar alarm, without success.

The men are believed to have searched the area for money raised at the dance, without success.

Luckily several hay bales in the hall did not catch alight otherwise the damage would have been far more severe.

Pearson said that after gaining access to the building, the men bent expensive expanding security gates to gain access to the reception area office, where they stole at least one computer and other items. According to security camera they spent about an hour rummaging through the office before setting the place alight.

Pearson said the footage showed the two men wiping fingerprints off counter tops before starting the fire.

“You can see them taking the computer out before purposefully torching the office. Fire is a vicious way of leaving a message and the staff are all deeply wounded by what happened.”

But he said the local community had rallied together behind the school and that everyone was standing together to try an overcome the disaster.

“We are going to use whatever resources we have to try and bring the criminals to book.”

Although schools have been set alight by vandals elsewhere in South Africa to protest demarcation issues, it seems the Port Alfred fire was started to try to destroy evidence.

While only two people are seen on CCTV footage inside the building, Pearson said at least four are thought to have been involved with the others waiting outside keeping watch.

Local police spokesman Lieutenant Luvuyo Mjekula yesterday said an arson docket and charges of housebreaking were being investigated. — davidm@dispatch.co.za

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