RICHMOND, Va. -- A veteran Fox Elementary school is remaining optimistic following a devastating fire that damaged their school earlier this month.
Tracee Candia came back to the school Wednesday afternoon for just the second time since the fire.
The 5th grade teacher says it's hard to process all the emotions she's had to confront, but she says even amid all the turmoil and sorrow, she is just grateful that children were not there when the fire broke out late in the evening on Friday, February 11.
"You'd normally hear children playing," Candia said, while gazing through the chain-link fence that surrounds the burned-out shell of the 110-year-old building. "You might hear a basketball bouncing. Sometimes, screaming, just happiness, just joy, the sounds of joy."
Candia has collected a lot of memories over her 24 years at Richmond's Fox Elementary School.
"Generations of life have come through this building," said Candia. "My own children have gone to this school. I actually taught my own children, all of them. For me, different people, that's what's carrying me, that's my strength."
The fire left just a shell of the building, and debris remains strewn inside and outside the facade - most of which remains intact- but Candia says "Fox" has always been more than just bricks and mortar.
"It mean lots of years of love, and hard work, and watching children," said Candia, pausing, her voice catching. "All I can think about taking from this is the memories, the laughter, the jokes, the ah-ha moments, the children that came to me for security or for help or to confide in me."
She said she didn't find out about the fire until she woke up Saturday morning to a stream of horrifying texts. Her heart pounding, she said her mind went immediately back to the fire drill the school had run the very day of the fire.
"All I could think about was if things didn't go as they did in the drill, that what if the fire wasn't when we were not there," Candia said, her eyes welling. "Can you imagine the frightened children? What if one were in the bathroom? And we'd be lined up outside as their school burned right next to them."
Despite the heartbreak and ongoing sense of dislocation, Candia said watching the community pick up and carry the Fox School family goes a long way towards healing.
She said the paper hearts and flowers and messages of love and support affixed to the fence mean a lot to everyone who spent their days inside that building.
"These kinds of things make you know you're not alone. You're not by yourself. Like I can feel the love just standing here and looking at these hearts," Candia said.
Candia says she hopes most of the beautiful elements of the original Fox building can be saved when rebuilding begins. But she wants the children who attended school here to know that whatever building they end up in, the "Fox" community will go on.