Fire at retreat: Pope John Paul II students escape blaze during school trip

Claudia Morano (left), Ryan Fleming (centre) and Mary Lou Halferty were three of the five Pope John Paul II secondary school teachers that helped get students out of a fire.Ryan Fleming and Claudia Morano, two teachers from Pope John Paul II Catholic Secondary, were up keeping watch during an overnight retreat on Feb. 29 when at around 4:10 a.m. they smelled smoke.

After Fleming went to find out where the smoke was coming from and discovered the roof of the chapel next door was ablaze, he and Morano pulled the alarm and went into the rooms to wake other teachers and students.

As a result of their quick action there were no fatalities from the blaze that caused over $300,000 damage to the structure.

The late-week visit to the Mount Alverno Catholic Retreat Centre in Caledon involved 42 local Grade 12 students, plus teachers Morano, Fleming, Colin Whitebread and Connie Shimko, plus school chaplain Mary Lou Halferty.

Principal Paul McAlpine praised the actions of his staff and students, and added that thile everyone was being modest about their actions, he was proud of the extra precautions that they had put in place.

“I feel a lot of pride and appreciation for how detailed they were in their planning, it was all very good,” he said. “The part I’m most proud of the above and beyond planning that they did.”

However, while the teachers’ plan to have two supervisors stay up and keep vigil helped to prevent a tragedy, Fleming, Morano and Halferty modestly say they don’t feel like heroes.

They made it clear getting the students out safely was an instinctive action.

“It’s not about a title of a hero, it’s that you’re there with a group of people and you want everyone to be safe,” Morano said.

The teachers also credited the students’ maturity in the situation. They said students shared blankets and took turns going into a heated room in a barn near the centre where they took refuge.

Students were also very helpful in encouraging and supporting the group of special needs students that were on the retreat.

“I think [the fire] brought the whole group together in a way,” Fleming said. “The tragedy created a bond.”

McAlpine also made it clear how proud he was of his students. He said after March Break they would make sure they got the end of their retreat during subsequent weeks at school.

The fire that began in the chapel was extinguished by firefighters within two hours.

While the fire did not reach the area where the students and teachers were sleeping the blaze managed to damage most of the chapel. Fleming said that it was most likely that the entire roof would have to be rebuilt.

Fleming, Morano and Halferty have not yet met with all the students that were involved in the retreat but they look forward to sharing and knowing their students’ thoughts and experiences.

Halferty said that while the retreat itself was meant to leave an impression on the soon-to-be graduates, she made it clear that what happened at the retreat would definitely leave a lasting impression.

“We’re all really clear that in 20 years time none of them will remember their calculus mark but they’ll all remember the fire,” Halferty said. “It’ll be part of their story telling and it will get very much embellished and that’s just fine.”