BEDFORD--Officials with the Bedford Police Department said a fire that “heavily damaged” the former Bedford Middle School on Thursday morning was intentionally set.
In a news release issued Thursday afternoon, Bedford Police Chief Todd Foreman said investigators reviewed surveillance photos from cameras at the former middle school at 503 Longwood Ave. and discovered images of a suspect believed to have started the fire.
Investigators are attempting to locate additional cameras that were inside the building. Anyone who can identify the suspect or has information about the alleged arson can contact the Bedford Police Department at (540) 587-6011 or the Fire Marshal’s Office at (434) 566-7905.
Bedford Fire Chief Brad Creasy said firefighters were called to the former school at about 3 a.m. Thursday. Creasy said the fire already was “heavily involved” when firefighters arrived on the scene.
“It could have been burning for an hour or more before we got the call,” Creasy said. “It had quite the jump on us.”
Creasy said the fire — which is believed to have originated on the second floor of the former middle school — already had spread to the building’s attic and roof, making it unsafe for firefighters to enter the building.
“We chose to take an exterior attack,” Creasy said. “We didn’t send firefighters inside because of the high risk and because there was already some floors collapsing.”
Creasy said about 50 firefighters from several fire stations — including those from Bedford, Forest, Moneta and Smith Mountain Lake — responded to the blaze.
“We couldn’t have done this alone,” Creasy said. “We were faced with a lot of setbacks. Our water pressure here has been a deterrent for us. We were trying to operate several ladder trucks and that consumes a lot of water.”
Bedford residents that came to the scene Thursday morning reported smoke from the fire could be seen several miles away, which drew onlookers from parts of Bedford County well outside the town’s limits.
“I didn’t need to see it on the news to know something was going on,” Goode resident Brett Sandage said. “You could see the smoke from my house.”
Like Sandage, many residents came to the scene Thursday morning to take a look at the school that once was the center of education in Bedford.
“A lot of history was lost today,” former Bedford Town Councilman Robert Carson said. “This is quite a shame.”
Bedford Town Manager Bart Warner said the fire marked “a dark day in Bedford.”
“The thing about this property is that it belongs to everyone in this community,” Warner said. “This building has touched the lives of so many people in this community. However, we will get through this as a community because Bedford is still a place that gets things done.”
Warner said it is not yet known how the fire will affect the recently approved performance agreement with a Petersburg developer to transform the former Bedford Middle School site into apartments and a boutique hotel. In April, the Bedford Town Council voted to approve an agreement with Waukeshaw Development Inc. to develop the 8.37-acre site. The other three buildings on the property were undamaged by the fire.
Waukeshaw owner Dave McCormack did not return calls seeking comment Thursday.
Under the terms of the performance agreement, Waukeshaw Development entered into a lease with the town while McCormack performs building abatement, acquires the proper zoning and building permits and submits architectural and engineering plans for the site.
“That’s kind of where we are right now,” Warner said. “We all will be referencing the agreement in the coming weeks to see where to go from here.”
Warner said town officials remain optimistic about the future development of the property despite “this obvious setback.”
“Given the nature of the agreement and the creativity of this developer, there is still a good shot that things will move forward,” Warner said. “We feel something creative will be done out here but we can’t say for certain what that will be right now.”