Rankin Grade School fire

Rankin resident Lisa Eighner Breymeyer captured this photo of Rankin's old grade school burning early Saturday morning. The building was destroyed by the fire.

RANKIN — The Vermilion County Public Health Department’s administrator said he plans to impose a deadline for the owner of the former Rankin Grade School building to remove the rubble that remains following a fire that destroyed the building Saturday.

As an arson investigator for the Illinois State Fire Marshal’s Office was probing the cause of the blaze Monday, health department Administrator Doug Toole said he planned to contact Rankin resident Herbert Polchow, who owns the property where the dilapidated building once stood, and “find out what his plans are and give him a warning letter” ordering him to clean up the debris by a certain date, or face fines.

“I would expect it to happen pretty soon,” Toole said.

Polchow, who did not immediately return messages seeking comment Monday, has already been fined once in connection with the property’s condition. In December, a complaint brought by the health department against Polchow in Vermilion County Circuit Court over the building’s deteriorating condition resulted in Polchow being ordered to pay a $500 fine, plus $610 in court fees, Toole said.

“I got some pictures out there (at the fire scene) yesterday, and the plan is that I will reopen the case in Vermilion County court and order him to remove the demolition debris” if he does not do so by the deadline imposed, Toole said.

Toole noted that some of the debris may be hazardous to the public, as asbestos is suspected of being contained in some of the materials. In addition, the site is considered unsafe because of its now-open basement.

Toole said the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency could also get involved if asbestos is determined to be present. If there is asbestos found, the materials would need to be properly removed from the site instead of buried there or reused, Toole said.

Firefighters from Rankin, Hoopeston and Cissna Park responded to the blaze at the three-story brick building in the 200 block of North Johnson Street around 4 a.m. Saturday, said Chris Bleich, assistant fire chief for the Rankin Fire Protection District.

None of the structure was still standing by the time firefighters cleared the scene around 9:45 a.m., Bleich said, calling the building a total loss.

An investigator for the state fire marshal’s office was at the scene Monday, but whether he was able to determine the cause of the blaze was not immediately known. Messages left with the investigator and with the fire marshal’s office’s spokesman were not immediately returned Monday.

For years, the health department had been trying to address the building’s condition through the court system.

The health department filed its first complaint regarding the structure in 2014. Toole said the complaint was in regards to the building being deemed unsafe and uninhabitable due to a corner of the building’s west side having collapsed.

At the time, the building was owned by Richard Mikalik. Mikalik was not initially taken to court, however, as he was selling the property on contract to Janis Redmond, who had been living in the building with some family members since 2011, Toole said. Because Redmond was still living there in 2014 and buying the building, she was the one taken to court instead of Mikalik, Toole said.

After Mikalik and Redmond argued in court over who should be held responsible, Mikalik ended up selling the building to Polchow for $10 in April 2017, Toole said.

At one point, “I had all three of them in court simultaneously on it,” Toole said.

The charge against Redmond was dismissed in February 2018, and Mikalik paid a small fine one month later, Toole said. Then in mid-2018, Polchow was ordered by a judge to tear down the building by the end of the year or instead face a fine. Polchow did not comply with the order and ended up being fined last December.

Toole said the matter had become “a bit more serious” in 2017 after Polchow bought the property, began tearing down some of the building’s remaining west side, and began burning some of that demolition debris.

“When he started burning, it became an EPA matter in addition to becoming a county ordinance violation problem,” Toole said.

Polchow’s brother, Gary, said the building was to be torn down and a new school for special-needs children built in its place.

“We have investors involved,” he said.

However, with the building’s condition still unimproved as of this spring, Toole began speaking with village officials about ways to address the building’s condition on their own. Toole suggested the village consider acquiring the property from Polchow and funding demolition costs through low-interest loans or grants that are available for such projects.

In April, Village Board President Aaron Warren asked each board member for his or her opinion on what to do with the building, and all said they would like to see it torn down and the property cleaned up, but not at the village’s expense.