FORT MCMURRAY, Alberta – Laura Dennis says the swift growth of the Alberta wildfire left her with little choice but to get 70 elementary school kids out of harm's way before official evacuation procedures could get started.
The principal of Good Shepherd Catholic School mobilized her staff, instructing them to take as many students as they could in their own vehicles and head toward another school that wasn't in the direct line of fire.
The convoy drove just yards from walls of flame that were destroying the neighborhood of Beacon Hill, leaving her terrified for everyone's safety.
"It was so scary driving along Beacon Hill with all these little kids in cars, and the flames were so close," Dennis said, fighting back tears at the memory.
Dennis says the teachers remained with their students for as long as 10 hours, foregoing the chance to return home for their own belongings, until everyone was safely reunited with their families.
"None of my staff got home. They all had to leave right from the school," Dennis said in a telephone interview from Edmonton where she fled from the fire. "We put kids first, and lots of them have their own families, so it's quite commendable."
Dennis said no one had any inkling of what the day had in store when students swarmed into class under clear, blue skies on Tuesday morning.
By lunch time, however, the situation had changed. Dennis said she knew trouble was looming based on the rapidly deteriorating air quality and dark clouds of smoke drifting on school grounds.
Dennis ended lunch recess a few minutes early to get the students back inside. Almost immediately thereafter, she said, terrified parents began arriving in droves to take their kids out of harm's way.
About 190 of the 260 students were gone within an hour, leaving staff and about 70 students to wait for instructions on what to do next.
Dennis received word from the town that school buses would collect the stragglers and take them to another Catholic school in a less hazardous area, but soon found the vehicles that were to bring them to safety had been caught up in the melee of people trying to flee the city.
Feeling the buses were taking too long, Dennis made the "snap decision" not to wait and to get the children out in staff vehicles instead. She said it was the only way to ensure everyone's safety and quell the student's anxiety.
"One little boy was crying and saying, 'I'm scared.' And I said, "yeah, it's ok to be scared, but just know we're going to look after you," she said.
Dennis said the 13 cars in the convoy would have reached their destination in 10 minutes under normal circumstances, but were forced to move at a snail's pace past some harrowing sights. Most of the cars made it safely to the other school, but Dennis said she and two other staff members were directed off the route due to the volume of traffic and the rapidly escalating blaze.
She said she found herself stuck at a hotel speaking to Hughes and other staff members to try to account for each child. Most met up with family members at the second school, but six couldn't connect with their parents.
Dennis said staff members made sure they stayed with those half dozen students until they were safely restored to family. In several cases, this involved coordinating with parents to meet up along the evacuation route.