BATH - An early morning spree of arson and vandalism at an Aiken County school affected several other schools Friday when trashed buses could not make their runs.
Vandals smashed windows in four buses that were parked at Midland Valley High School and tried to set some of them on fire, investigators said. They also torched a greenhouse and storage shed behind the school.
A custodian found the buildings in flames about 5:45 a.m., about the same time that sanitation workers discovered the fires. The two calls to the Bath Fire Department were seconds apart, Chief David Cunningham said. Firefighters from the Bath station responded at 5:47 a.m., but the storage shed was destroyed, and half of the greenhouse was gone before that blaze was put out, he said.
Singed fabric stuffed in the gas tanks indicated the vandals tried to ignite the diesel fuel in some buses but failed, said Lt. Michael Frank of the Aiken County Sheriff's Office.
Principal Margaret Mullen said the custodian also called her. She arrived at the school about 6 a.m. and watched as firefighters worked.
Seven bus routes were disrupted, because some of the damaged vehicles were scheduled for more than one route, Assistant Superintendent Troy Nobles said. More than 300 students on the routes were late at Midland Valley and at Warrenville and Clearwater elementary schools and Leavelle McCampbell and Langley-Bath-Clearwater middle schools.
Mr. Nobles said the monetary loss hasn't been measured yet, but there's no dollar value for the inconvenience and danger the vandals caused.
"The disruption this caused the good people of Aiken County who depend on our buses to get their children to school safely and on time is just hard to accept," he said. "We had children standing by the roadside on a cold, dark, wet day 30 or 40 minutes after they should have been in their classrooms in a safe environment."
Two of the damaged vehicles were back in service for afternoon routes, Mr. Nobles said, but two need extensive repairs. Those had windows broken "all the way around," and the headlights and rear-door emergency glass also were damaged.
Burnettown police and the Aiken County Sheriff's Office both were investigating Friday.
Lt. Frank asked that anyone with information about the crimes call the Burnettown Police Department at (803) 593-2676 or the sheriff's office at (803) 642-1790 or (800) 922-3211.
Information also may be reported to Aiken County Crime Stoppers at (866) 88-CRIME. Callers can remain anonymous and may be eligible for a cash reward up to $1,000.
Deputy Superintendent William Gallman said he's confident that students will tell if they hear anyone bragging about causing the damage.
"We have wonderful students at Midland Valley, and they are really angry about this," he said.
The incident at Midland Valley was the third of its kind this year in Aiken County and the 11th since school began last fall. It also was the worst. Most of the other incidents involved just broken windows, although Jefferson Elementary and LBC Middle School were more severely damaged in January. Damage included broken windows, emptied fire extinguishers, paint spatters and overturned furniture.
Reach Margaret N. O'Shea at (803) 279-6895.