Minnehaha students, faculty 'keep moving ahead' months after deadly explosion
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The fall semester at Minnehaha Academy ends Thursday. In addition to final exams, the older grades of the Minneapolis private school are still coping with the effects of a gas explosion that killed two beloved employees and destroyed century-old buildings, forcing them to move to a temporary space miles away.
In a former community college in Mendota Heights, Minnehaha students walk by walls papered with images of their old school. The entrance bears the school's logo.
Senior Grace Percich is amazed the school feels like home.
"I've been very impressed with how well this facility has functioned in terms of the planning that was given was so rushed. I think we've been very fortunate," she said.
But it is missing some things, like practice fields and basketball courts. There are fewer quiet areas and spaces they can make their own — such as the hallway seniors always decorated.
The building is also smaller — meaning there's some creativity in play. Percich pointed out the "chapelteria."
"We eat in there, we have all our chapel services, and in addition we have our activity periods. It is used in every capacity, I believe," Percich said.
Minnehaha Academy President Donna Harris last week invited reporters along as she took a last look at the old structures, damaged beyond repair.
"Those are my windows, that's the window that I climbed out of," she said. "I haven't been this close since the day I was rescued from the ledge."
She remembers that day in August when she suddenly heard people shouting to leave the building.
"And the blast hit and we were all thrown back and so we couldn't go forward and we had to then turn around and leave in the other direction," she said. "It was only later that if we had gone just a few more steps, we would've likely been in the pile of debris."
Janitor John Carlson and receptionist Ruth Berg were not able to get out. They died in the blast.
The two damaged buildings on the Minneapolis campus will be demolished by the end of January. The school has hired an architecture firm and construction company to handle the rebuild. The project is expected to be completed by August 2019.
Life sciences teacher Nancy Cripe was at Minnehaha on the day of the explosion, and soon found out that all the science labs where she taught for more than two decades were destroyed. As she equipped her new space, Cripe was encouraged to hear from students she taught years ago.
"To hear the stories, the importance of Minnehaha throughout many, many years and many generations, that was very meaningful to so many of us who think 'OK, it's this year's class, they've graduated, now I have another class,' " she said. "But this went beyond that, this was decades worth of alumni and beyond."
Counselors have been available to current students and staff grieving for Carlson and Berg. But Cripe said students and staff have also helped each other in that process.
"Days here teaching with our really committed and compassionate students," Cripe said. "They're creative, I love working with them. They keep things moving ahead."
Correction (Dec. 21, 2017): An earlier version of this story included an incorrect spelling of Grace Percich's name.