Flames ripped through the Hastings Intermediate School hall yesterday evening destroying the building and most of the school's administration block.
The 10m x 30m hall was well ablaze when fire crews arrived at the school in the suburb of Akina about 6.30pm and took more than an hour to control.
Ten fire appliances, from Hastings, Napier and Havelock North, attended the fire and used cranes, while police kept huge crowds of onlookers back.
Twelve-year-old Shem Todd watched from a neighbouring property as smoke billowed out of his school's roof and the structure collapsed.
"I hate school but I can't believe it's on fire," Shem said. Other pupils gathered together with their hands over dropped jaws unable to believe their school was going up in flames.
Some expressed concern for the books, championship cups and sporting equipment, while others speculated that it was purposely lit by a pupil.
Despite excitement that school would be out for a few days, principal Graham Ellis confirmed classes were to go ahead today for the 319 pupils.
Mr Ellis had been driving through Bay View at the time and received texts to tell him the school was on fire.
"That was the longest drive of my life. Knowing the smoke was coming from our school and there was nothing I could do," Mr Ellis said, struggling to hide his emotions.
"The hall is the heart of the school. And the pupils are the soul of the school. But the hall is where they come together as a whole and celebrate being Hastings Intermediate School. So it feels like we've had our heart ripped out and it really is a very raw wound," he said today.
Hastings Intermediate fell victim to an arson attack in 1985 which had been a major topic of conversation at the school's 50th anniversary reunion last year.
A lot of memorabilia had been found under the gymnasium's stage before the reunion.
Yesterday a neighbour, Sue Smith, shook as she watched the flames near her house.
"I got such a fright and called 111," she said."I grabbed the dog and bird and put them in the car. There's not a lot of distance between the school and my house."
Mr Ellis said he was appreciative of all the messages of support he and the board had received from the community. Clive School principal Brian Eales was on hand to support Mr Ellis and the school board's chairwoman, Jeannette MacKenzie, was at the scene.
Mr Ellis said "speculation was rife" as to the cause of the fire, but added that speculation was counter-productive. He said it was too early to tell the extent of damage in dollar terms.
School was back as normal today but the children were all reacting in different ways and would be offered counselling. Sport uniforms that were to be worn in a sporting exchange with Rathkeale College next week were lost in the fire.
Firefighters were heading back to the scene this morning to check on hot spots and to start investigations into the fire's cause.
Hastings chief fire officer Ray Brown said the fire was being treated as suspicious.