Boxes of brand-new football jerseys were stacked in Des Moines East’s home locker room on Tuesday.
By Wednesday morning, they were piled in a 20-foot-long trash bin after a fire raged through the facility, destroying equipment less than a week before the team’s first practice.
More than 100 red jerseys didn’t make it out of their crates.
“Now they’re brand-new — in the garbage can,” said Ric Powell, East’s activities director.
A late Tuesday night blaze at Williams Stadium caused damage estimated between $100,000 and $150,000. The fire gutted the coaches’ offices, equipment and storage facilities and left traces of smoke and water throughout the home team’s locker room and a restroom that was to be renovated for use before the school’s Aug. 24 home opener against Ames.
An electrical panel that controls the public-address system and scoreboard was a mass of melted wires and switches.
The equipment lost could amount to 200 football helmets, shoulder, hip and thigh pads, and practice and game jerseys for the East programs from eighth grade to varsity level.
Coach Greg Schoon was asked what was lost in the fire.
“Everything,” Schoon said, “everything a football team needs.”
Insurance is expected to cover the damages. School officials are uncertain when replacement equipment will arrive.
The school opens non-padded practice on Monday. Padded practice begins three days later. School officials were negotiating with equipment suppliers to get materials in time.
Ames High School has offered to loan East jerseys and helmets for the opening game.
Des Moines public schools workers, coaching staff members and players spent Wednesday sifting through the charred remains.
A trash bin was rapidly filled with melted helmets and scorched shoulder pads.
“Everything’s black,” senior quarterback Xavier James said.
The cause of the fire was not immediately known on Wednesday.
Des Moines Police officers noticed a burning odor in the air as they were patrolling in the vicinity of the stadium on Tuesday and notified the fire department. Police and fire investigators believe an unknown suspect or suspects may have entered the stadium before the fire was discovered, according to a Des Moines Police Department press release. Witnesses in the area observed a silver Chevrolet Impala and a maroon four-door sedan, possibly a Pontiac, leave the south parking lot of the stadium just prior to the fire department’s arrival. The driver of one of those vehicles was described as a male aged 18 to 25.
The damaged locker room was used for visiting teams for Grand View University football games. The Vikings’ home opener is Aug. 25 vs. Graceland University.
East is the state’s third-largest school. Last year’s varsity team had 58 players.
Williams Stadium opened in 1954. The sturdy cement-block locker room area has been home to generations of Scarlet players such as Iowa receiver Scott Helverson and all-state running backs London Hayes and Jermaine Reed.
Iowa State’s Troy Davis raced on the field at the 1996 Cyclone spring game.
The damage is a setback to an athletic complex that includes an artificial-turf playing surface, an eight-lane track and a pavilion and entryway that donors raised $650,000 to complete.
“The good news is no one was hurt,” Powell said. “The bad news is we start football practice on Monday.”
Some varsity uniforms and equipment that were stored in the locker room are being evaluated to determine if they can be salvaged.
Temporary lights run by a generator were strung along the blackened ceiling in the coaches’ office. Debris was carried out by workers and a small bulldozer.
Shoes, footballs and mouthpieces were lost in the fire. So was some track and field equipment.
“When you’ve got it, you take it for granted,” Schoon said. “Until it’s gone.”
Coaches from Ames, West Des Moines Valley and Dowling Catholic all offered help by late Wednesday morning, Powell said.
Players are hoping to get re-equipped soon.
“I’m sure we’ll get new uniforms, but I’m not sure when,” James said.
Powell said he expects the community to rally in the wake of the fire.
“East-siders bounce back,” Powell said. “It’ll be OK.”
AMES OFFERS JERSEYS, HELMETS
Des Moines East’s season-opening home game could look like Ames vs. Ames.
Ames High has offered 50 to 60 helmets and game jerseys for the Aug. 24 game at Williams Stadium, according to East activities director Ric Powell.
“It might be the first time that a team plays in an opponent’s jerseys,” Powell said.
East has a bye week on Aug. 17. Ames plays at Mason City.
Ames coach Bruce Vertanen said he heard about the fire on Wednesday.
“You think of the kids and coaches and athletes that are suffering,” Vertanen said. “We’ll help in any way possible.”
Ames’ school colors are orange and black. East’s colors are red and black.
If you have information regarding the Williams Stadium investigation, contact Polk County Crime Stoppers at (515) 223-1400.