Wisps of smoke lingered like ghosts inside Irving Junior High School as firefighters doused hot spots and arson investigators sifted through the rubble Sunday.
Irving went up in flames Saturday morning, lighting up the pre-dawn sky in a spectacular four-alarm fire that reduced 71 years of history to a smoldering ruin.To thousands of Irving alumni - those of us thirtysomething to eightysomething who had traversed its halls in the throes of adolescence - the blaze revived a lot of dormant memories.
"Oh my, the past is so exciting!" Ethel Law exclaimed to generations of students from the front of what is now a charred classroom, breathing life into a subject many of us considered as old as she was.
Rumor had it that Mrs. Law had been teaching at Irving since the day it opened in 1919 and that she knew so much about Utah history because she had witnessed most of it firsthand.
When Mrs. Law wasn't describing the hardships faced by the Mormon pioneers who settled the state, she was leading the class in a chorus of conjugated Latin verbs.
Meanwhile, down the hall, Mr. Maddox would rap his ever-present ruler on the desk and snarl - with his trademark southern drawl - "Gatt quiet." But if the math class became too quiet, he would roll up his trouser leg and flex his calf muscle to provoke giggles and guffaws. "Ain't that gorgeous?" he would say, then repeat his, "Gatt quiet!"
The fire brought Mrs. Law, Mr. Maddox, Coach Magelby, Mr. Salyer, Mrs. Wooley and many other teachers, classmates and "happy days" to mind for Irvingites everywhere. It gave rise to memories of the special kids in Classroom B3 and of a sitdown strike in the early '60s to protest the deportation of an art teacher. Every alumnus has a story.
"Now it's all charred and burned," said Salt Lake Fire Battalion Chief Gordon Nicholl, who on Sunday wandered through devastated hallways and rooms that were full of the past.
"Going through it really jars your memory," he said, recalling the time he spent there in the late 1950s. "I was thinking about the fun times. I thought of old friends."
Walking through the rubble, he remembered his best friend, Brent. "We were inseparable in those days."
Years later, when Nicholl was a paramedic at Fire Station No. 8, he was dispatched to a motorcycle accident. "It was my friend, Brent, from Irving. . . . He died in my arms."
A special team of 20 arson investigators from across the country, including a federal prosecutor, arrived in Salt Lake City Sunday to investigate the blaze. Nicholl said the fire is considered "definitely suspicious."
Firefighters suspect that it began somewhere near the old gym and spread and grew in intensity for several hours before it was noticed. Damage was estimated at more than $500,000.
"I remember being in that gym as a kid and how strict the coaches were," Nicholl said. "Coach Magelby and the others, they really wanted you to work hard."
In the gym dressing room, Nicholl found the locker door that someone had once slammed on his leg. He still has the scar.
Irving left its mark on a lot of people. When asked by a colleague to explain why he had placed the Irving fire story on the front page of the Deseret News, Wire Editor Ron Cook could have simply answered that it was one of the biggest fires of the year and deserved the prominent display. Instead, he replied, "I went to Irving."