Dakota Datebook

Fargo Central High School Fire

Friday, April 20, 2012

 

On this date in 1966, citizens of Fargo, and especially high school students, were reeling in the aftermath of a fire that had destroyed the high school just 24 hours earlier. Fargo Central was the city’s south side public high school. The three story school of elegant red brick, was 45 years old, built after the first Central High School, built in 1882, also burned down.

 

Nothing seemed out of the ordinary at Central on that cold April Tuesday. Snow was falling. Then around noon, the memorable events began to unfold. Unknown to the 1,017 students and personnel in the building, a fire had started in the south side of the school attic. The flames had burrowed across the floor and through the ceiling. Smoke and its accompanying pungency soon wafted down the corridors.

 

According to later reports, Central High principal Otto Bernhoft heard a popping sound in the school auditorium and immediately was on the intercom. He notified the students to evacuate – that this was no drill, an active fire was in progress. The students were instructed to leave without taking anything with them – including their jackets or overcoats.

 

One of those students recalled the incident years later. “It was just before noon when we hit the exit doors,” he said. “By then the hallway on the third floor had a strong tinge of the smoke that was clearly visible in the upper reaches of the auditorium. There were high windows separating portions of the third floor hallways from the upper reaches of the auditorium which lay in the center of the building. It wasn’t long before flames were towering above the room. The scene that unfolded as I watched the demise of that grand old building from across the street will forever be etched in my mind’s eye.”

 

Students from all three floors hastened in orderly fashion to the exits. Outside the school they were all unharmed, cold, but safe.

A portion of the school’s roof collapsed. Fargo’s fire department raced to the scene and even the off-duty firefighters were called. Flames were aided by the typical high winds that can race across the region.

 

A student from a nearby junior high also recalled the incident. He said, “Several of us were students at Agassiz then and remember throngs of Central students running into Agassiz, seeking shelter from the cold.”

 

The building could not be recovered. Central students would share the newly constructed Fargo North High with North students. They would all share memories of the day the school burned down.

 

Dakota Datebook written by Steve Stark

 

Sources:

Dill, Joe, editor, 1988, North Dakota 100 Years: The Forum, 1988, Forum Publishing Co.

 

http://www.fmheritagesociety.org/photos/FMHSNovNews.pdf

 

http://www.gendisasters.com/northdakota/9708/fargo-nd-fire-april-1966

 

http://www.winonadailynews.com/1966-04-21.

 

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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