COLUMBIA — A 1969 Ford tractor caught fire during a welding class at the Columbia Area Career Center on Tuesday afternoon. All students were evacuated immediately, but no one was injured.
The call to the Columbia Fire Department at 2:34 p.m. was initially a fire alarm alert and was quickly upgraded to a structure fire, according to Capt. John Metz.
He said five teachers used portable fire extinguishers to put out the blaze, which did not spread beyond the tractor.
The flames had already been extinguished when firefighters arrived. The career center, at 4203 S. Providence Road, is adjacent to Rock Bridge High School.
The fire marshal is investigating to determine the cause of the blaze, Metz said.
Welding instructor William Irvin said he pulled a fire alarm, and he's sure he wasn't the only one. Columbia Public Schools Deputy Superintendent Nick Boren, himself a former welding instructor, rushed to the Rock Bridge campus from his office.
Three fire engines, one ladder and a squad of firefighters, all from Columbia, were on the scene about five minutes after the call came in, Metz said. They remained for about an hour ventilating smoke and fire extinguisher dust.
Damage was estimated at $7,000, according to a press release from the fire department.
Boren said 17 high school students were in the classroom, some working on the tractor's carburetor and others welding metal cages, when a spark ignited fumes or spilled gas.
Several large red Power MIG welders were stationed around the shop, but Boren said their tanks are full of a non-flammable mixture of carbon dioxide and argon gas.
Faculty and staff managed the students outside while still getting them home on the buses.
A group of about eight boys received a small cheer from teachers when they inquired about their Robotics First meeting, scheduled for Tuesday night at the school. They moved under a tree for an informal meeting. On another side of the building, a larger group of students sat in shade for an impromptu lesson about protozoans.
By the time most students had dispersed, a sulfur stink lingered, but Metz said the yellow haze from the cloud of released fire extinguisher powder had settled. All that remained was a fine dusting, revealing the tracks of the firefighters' boots through the room.