‘Together we rise’: After fatal school explosion, Minnehaha Academy rallies together

Emma Melling lost her “home” on Aug. 2.

On that morning, a gas leak caused a portion of Minnehaha Academy’s high school to explode and collapse, killing two and injuring nine others. Melling, a student at the south Minneapolis private school since kindergarten, watched the aftermath of the explosion on her living room TV.

Upon hearing about the explosion, “my mom started crying right away,” Melling said, “and we turned on the news and just watched footage for the whole day.”

Minnehaha Academy students pose for a photo during homecoming on Sept. 30. The Minneapolis private school’s community has rallied together after a gas leak explosion killed two and collapsed part of a school building in August.
(Photo courtesy of Minnehaha Academy)

In the aftermath, the school 
held community gatherings and events. Seniors wrote encouraging messages in chalk in the parking lot. Students hung red ribbons on
a nearby fence in support of the school. Melling brought flowers and placed them on the fence, she said.

Since the tragic explosion, the Minnehaha Academy community has rallied together while the school rebuilds, physically and emotionally. This was evident during homecoming festivities on Sept. 30, when students, families, alumni and community members gathered for a service and celebration of the school.

Minnehaha Academy President Donna Harris said homecoming brought a sense of normalcy back to campus.

“Almost two months after our tragedy, we are still able to have all of our activities and our students, the smiles on faces, our alumni coming back home,” Harris said. “The hope that was brought to the Minnehaha community through the students, families and alumni is irreplaceable. We have to do this, it is part of the healing process.”

The gas leak explosion occurred on the morning of Aug. 2 at the Upper School, killing Ruth Berg, a longtime school receptionist, and John F. Carlson, a longtime custodian. The explosion collapsed part of the building.

School officials scrambled to find a new location for the 2017-18 school year. They settled in a Mendota Heights office park that was formerly Brown College.

Emma Melling, a senior at Minnehaha Academy. (Photo courtesy of Minnehaha Academy)

It’s a new reality for Melling and her classmates.

“So many people worked so hard to get that up and running for us in literally two weeks,” Melling said. “It is an amazing blessing.”

In October, the school expected demolition of the Upper Campus to be completed by Thanksgiving, according to a WCCO news report. The school plans to rebuild a new Upper Campus building.

At the homecoming festivities, people embraced each other in the main hallway and the chapel. Young people played in the bounce house on the athletic field. High schoolers danced to music on the field. Adults socialized and alumni reminisced on their time at Minnehaha Academy.

The Minnehaha Academy band plays during homecoming festivities. (Photo courtesy of Minnehaha Academy)

One of those alumni was Leah McLean, a news anchor at KSTP in Minneapolis. On Aug. 2, McLean was at Target, buying school sup- plies with her two young daughters, when she received a phone call saying there was an explosion at the school. For McLean, the tragedy she was going to have to cover for the news suddenly became personal.

“In a moment it became busy, it became intense and more personal than an explosion anywhere else would’ve been,” McLean said.

McLean says that the school’s faith—Minnehaha Academy is a Christian school—has played a major role in how its community has responded.

“When a tragedy happens, instead of everybody getting down and looking at all the negatives, everybody is looking for the positives,” McLean said. “They’re looking for opportunities for growth. They’re looking at ways they can come together and support one another.

“The theme has been “Together we rise,” and I think it’s so true. I think this school will rise, it will go on and it will be better than it was before.”

The senior class has its own motto: You can’t shake our foundation.

“I think that we are stronger because of it,” Melling said, “and we have all come together.”