Monroe Elementary School fire of ’82: ‘Worst Fire in Monroe History’

Jay DuBac stands among the ruins of the old wing of Monroe Elementary School in the aftermath of the fire in the summer of 1982. Photo by Patrick O'Hara

The Monroe Volunteer Fire Department has responded to fires, big and small, during its first 100 years. As part of a series honoring the company’s anniversary, The Sun will chronicle the most notable ones, from the Budget Saver Market in Village Square to Señor Pancho’s and Skate Time.

In Part 2 of the anniversary series, The Sun tells the story of the Monroe Elementary School blaze, known as “the worst fire in Monroe history”, using old newspaper articles from the Monroe Courier, The New York Times and the MVFD’s records.

MONROE, CT — A devastating fire roared through the older section of Monroe Elementary School, 375 Monroe Turnpike, sounding alarms at 11:40 p.m. on Sunday, July 25, 1982. Over 150 firefighters from 16 area departments battled the “raging inferno” until 5:30 a.m., when the first company was released from the scene.

Firefighters prevented the flames from destroying a newer wing built 12 years prior, but in the older portion, only a fieldstone wall withstood the blaze, according to a New York Times article by Leonard J. Grimaldi on September 5, 1982.

The cost of reconstruction was $3.3 million.

The Town Council approved a resolution at a special town meeting. Most of the funding came from the Holyoke Insurance Company of Massachusetts and any shortfall was to be financed by the state, Grimaldi wrote.

The Bridgeport architectural firm of Fletcher-Thompson performed the reconstruction.

In Grimaldi’s account, “The blaze – the worst in Monroe history – incinerated books, records and entire classrooms.”

Monroe Fire Marshal Donald Rose worked with Trumbull Fire Marshal Joseph Adzima, a participant in the regional arson-bomb squad, and Joseph Laput, of the State Fire Marshal’s Office in Meriden to investigate the cause.

According to the Monroe Courier: There was an early report by Ray Dolzani, head custodian at Monroe Elementary who lives nearby, of the presence of cars near the school at a late hour, and also a report of an open door in the school’s all-purpose room, leading to the investigation for possible arson.

“It was believed to have been started by a faulty copier machine and destroyed multiple classrooms, the auditorium and administrative offices,” Monroe Deputy Fire Chief Kevin Catalano recalled of the fire.

Current Fire Marshal William “Bill” Davin confirmed it was an overheated copier machine.

Among the fire departments assisting Monroe on the scene were Stepney, Stevenson, Sandy Hook, United Fire, Newtown Hook and Ladder, Long Hill, Trumbull Center, Nichols, Huntington, White Hills, Quaker Farms and Riverside. Units from Easton, Echo Hose and Southbury fire departments moved in to cover Monroe fire stations.

In October of 1982, Monroe Fire Chief Charles Davin, who is Bill Davin’s father, showed his appreciation to the surrounding departments by hosting a picnic at Monroe Station 1 for all those who assisted at the Village Square and Monroe Elementary School fires that year.

Sunnyside brightens Monroe’s fall

In the fall of 1982, 400 Monroe grammar school students started classes a week later than other districts, in the building most knew as Sunnyside School in Shelton, according to The New York Times article, “For Monroe, It’s Back to School in Shelton,” written by Leonard J. Grimaldi on September 5, 1982.

After the Monroe Elementary School in July of 1982, Sunnyside School, 418 Riverside Road in Shelton, opened its doors to 400 Monroe students.

Sunnyside School had closed down due to declining enrollment and the Shelton Board of Education allowed Monroe students to use the building rent free.

Dr. Peter Barile, Monroe’s Superintendent of Schools at the time, said administrators wanted students to feel like they were still attending school in town, so they called the building “Monroe Elementary East.”

Prior to the Sunnyside School solution, Barile said he pondered double sessions at the town’s two other grammar schools; dividing students between Chalk Hill Middle and Masuk High schools; or even setting up makeshift classrooms in area churches.

He also spoke with superintendents in Shelton and Trumbull about available space in their districts.

”It was like losing your own home — a family tragedy,” Barile told The Times.

”Shocked,” said Charlotte Rosen, the town’s director of Program Development for Pupil Services. ”Some of the students I’ve talked to since the fire tell me, ‘I can’t look at the school, I close my eyes. I don’t want to look.’ ”

Monroe’s kindergarten and preschool students attended Stepney Elementary and Fawn Hollow schools.

According to the Times article, four parents enrolled their children in St. Jude School, a private school in Monroe. A St. Jude administrator told the newspaper they received many inquiries, but did not have enough room to accommodate all the requests.

St. Jude School closed in 2017 due to declining enrollment and the town is considering a purchase of the old brick building at 707 Monroe Turnpike.

The cost of the move to Sunnyside School was estimated at $100,000 and administrators called parents for old report cards in an attempt to reconstruct pupil records destroyed in the fire. Thousands of books and other materials lost in the fire were donated in fund drives.

Bus routes from Monroe to Shelton added 15 minutes to students’ morning commutes, so there was a later start to the school day, which ran from 9:15 a.m. to 3:02 p.m., 20 minutes shorter than the year before.

An old newspaper article shows a photo of firefighters battling the Monroe Elementary School blaze.

Grimaldi interviewed Karen Burnaska’s two daughters about the upcoming school year. Burnaska, a former first selectman, was a Monroe Town Council member at the time:

Christine, the Burnaskas’ 9-year-old daughter, who is entering fifth grade, said, ”I might have some butterflies the first couple of days. It might be weird at first, but we will have our friends and the teachers will be the same, so it won’t be much different.”

But to 8-year-old Becky Burnaska, who enters the third grade on Tuesday, school is school. ”Everything will be the same about the school,” she said, ”except for its looks. The teachers will sit us down. They’ll be easy on us at first, then it will get harder and harder and harder. That’s what I’ll hate the most.”

All respectful comments with the commenter’s first and last name are welcome.


  1. My son was one of the children who transferred to St Jude. There was a school bus accident on Rt 110 the prior year when a bus lost it brakes. So we were concerned about safety. The cause of the fire was the copier machine in the Board of Education office. It overheated because it was left turned on all weekend.

  2. My three daughters went to Monroe Elementary at the same time of the fire! Going to Sunnyside was different and the change was difficult but it worked 👍🏻Perhaps replacing textbooks and many other Documents was tough Love,but not a person was in harms way!🙏🏻💙🙏🏻💕👍🏻

  3. My brother took that photo in this article. We were at the fire most of the night. It was just awful, so many memories. I think at one point most of the town showed up there. I remember driving by there for so long and all you saw was the stone front to the building.

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