2 workers die, 2 are injured in school gym fire Vapors from solvent explode during stripping of floor

October 25, 1993|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Staff Writer

Two Baltimore public school maintenance supervisors were killed yesterday morning and two other workers were burned, one critically, when vapors from a solvent they were using to strip a gymnasium floor exploded in flames.

Rudolph Sellman, custodian at Westport Elementary School in South Baltimore and one of six workers and supervisors on the job, barely escaped the flash fire, which fire officials believe ignited when a man struck a match to light a cigar.

"I heard a couple of explosions and a whoosh of wind. The flames reached to the ceiling and started coming across the floor at me," Mr. Sellman said. "I panicked and ran, and I got out just in time."

Mr. Sellman, who said he was standing in an area of the floor where the solvent had already dried, escaped with the back of his trousers and the heels of his boots scorched, and one other worker, Lewis Erving, also managed to run from the building without injury. Four other employees standing in an area still covered with liquid solvent were caught in the fire.

The two supervisors killed were identified by school officials as Adam Tolandis, 46, of the 400 block of N. Woodward St., who had worked in the school system for 20 years, and Juanita Barnes, 52, of the 1600 block of E. Belvedere Ave., who had worked for the system 20 years.

Their bodies were found on the floor of the gymnasium on the school's second floor.

In critical condition in the regional burn center at the Francis Scott Key Medical Center was William Meyers, 39, who firefighters said had suffered third-degree burns over 90 percent of his body. Raymond Berkley was listed in satisfactory condition at Harbor Hospital Center with first- and second-degree burns on his legs. Their titles were not available.

Neighbors said they saw the two injured men appear at a second-floor window near the gymnasium several minutes after the explosion. Both were helped down a ladder by firefighters.

Pauline Hazelton, whose house on Westport Street faces the back of the school, said she watched as firefighters supported one man, apparently Mr. Meyers, as they doused his smoldering clothes and skin in the spray from a fire hose.

"His skin was peeling off, blowing in the wind. He was conscious but hysterical," Ms. Hazelton said.

Witnesses said at least some doors of the school were chained shut. Firefighters wielding axes had trouble breaking through plastic-glass windows on the second floor, which may have made ventilation of the gymnasium difficult.

Battalion Chief Carl E. McDonald said more than 20 pieces of equipment responded when the fire alarm sounded at 9:53 a.m., including six engine companies and six truck companies. He said the fire was declared under control just after 1 p.m.

Schools spokesman Nat Harrington said the school on Nevada Street will be closed for its 700 students today. All staff should report at the usual time in casual clothes to await further instructions, he said.

Fire officials estimated damage to the brick building at $500,000, with another $20,000 in contents destroyed. While the fire itself was essentially limited to the gymnasium, much of the school suffered smoke and water damage.

Yesterday afternoon, as the fire trucks pulled away, several classrooms festooned with Halloween decorations remained flooded with several inches of water and sooty debris was scattered in the hallway.

Mr. Sellman, a school maintenance employee for 25 years, 14 of them as custodian at Westport Elementary, said the gym's artificial floor had been routinely treated with a glossy sealant that had built up for some time. The six employees had worked for two weekends to strip the old layers of sealant, doing the job when children were not present.

The solvent used was "Liquid Strip," a paint remover manufactured by the Parks Corp. of Somerset, Mass. A bold-print warning on a can discarded in a trash bin outside the school said, "Danger! Extremely flammable liquid and vapor. . . . Vapors may ignite explosively. Keep contents and vapor away from heat, sparks and flame. Vapors may cause flash fire. Do not smoke."

On Saturday, Mr. Sellman said, some workers objected when a supervisor lighted a thin cigar, pointing out the danger of explosion. The supervisor, whose name Mr. Sellman said he did not know, refused to put out the cigar and told his subordinates that they had no right to tell him what to do.

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