A fire loss measured in ruined books

January 31, 1995|By Jean Thompson | Jean Thompson,Sun Staff Writer Contributing writer Art Kramer assisted with this article.

Yesterday's fire at Lake Clifton-Eastern Senior High School in Baltimore caused at least a half-million dollars damage and is expected to mean at least a week of classes lost for the 2,229 students.

School officials said the fire was started by a faulty electrical outlet in a room in the lower level of the two-story library. Fire officials could not confirm the cause of the blaze, which was under investigation, but said it did not appear to be of suspicious origin.

Beyond damage to the structure and lost class time, the loss at Lake Clifton will be measured in ruined books, thousands of librarian Yvonne Mercer's beloved volumes reduced to piles of blackened, waterlogged muck by the early morning, four-alarm fire.

"They told me not to go over there to look, because it'll upset me so much," said Ms. Mercer, who joined the staff in September.

She and her assistant, Mary E. Price, had been organizing the school's library for months, and last week added 206 new books to the shelves. They had issued library cards to each student, dusted each shelf and placed flowers in the library.

As she waited yesterday with most of Lake Clifton-Eastern's 189 teachers and staff in the auditorium of nearby Harford Heights Elementary, school officials temporarily barred teachers and students from their building. They may not return until damage can be assessed fully and until a private company can rid the school of potentially hazardous smoke and soot, Principal Stanley E. Holmes said.

"You're going to have to lift each others' spirits," he told teachers. He estimated that classes will not resume until at least Monday; a decision is expected today. All city schools are closed today for staff development.

Fire officials estimated structural damage yesterday at about $400,000; school officials said the number may be revised after engineers and architects examine the building. That figure does not include the cost of replacing furniture, books and electronic equipment, which could boost damage to more than $1 million, said Nat Harrington, a spokesman for the school system.

As the blaze consumed the library and destroyed storage areas containing the school's audiovisual equipment, temperatures reached an estimated 1,100 to 1,500 degrees and caused damage that may be irreparable, said Mr. Harrington.

The sprawling school, called the largest in the country when it opened in 1971, was designed as five buildings connected by passageways. Fire damage was concentrated in "the central core," containing the library and administrative offices.

"The steel structures which held the building together have been bent," Wilbur Giles, facilities director for the school system, told teachers yesterday. "The first floor collapsed. The area you know as your library has been destroyed."

Starting to cry, Ms. Mercer, 43, said: "We had just gotten it to the point where it was really inviting."

The librarians had not finished their inventory, but yesterday they tried to size up their losses: 500 shelves of nonfiction books, hundreds of paperbacks, a fiction collection, six bookcases of new career-planning books, a new computerized encyclopedia, videos made by students about the library's recent rejuvenation. All gone.

The fire also caused smoke and water damage to the school's administrative offices, including an office recently built for a team of parents, teachers and administrators who help manage the school. The ceiling in the school cafeteria must be replaced, but the kitchen was not damaged and the equipment was being tested, Mr. Giles said. Officials said classroom sections of the building sustained relatively little damage.

"It is uncomfortable to be in the building right now," Mr. Giles said. "We do not want anyone in there until we can get the contractor to certify that the air quality is safe."

Classrooms were spared from the flames, in part because they were located away from the library, said Mr. Holmes.

However, thick soot coated the area of the fire and the acrid scent of smoke is widespread.

Administrators were able to save computer disks holding important school records, he said.

Yesterday, as snow flurries fell on a roof scarred by fire and holes cut by firefighters, a cleanup crew from a private contractor arrived with security guards and began boarding up broken windows.

Workers from a repair company estimated that 200 to 300 windows must be replaced at a cost of $150 to $225 each.

Mr. Holmes said teachers and staff will report tomorrow to Harford Heights Elementary School. Staff members and counselors are developing a plan to help students cope with the blaze.

"We lose our studying place," said student James McVay, 16, a 10th-grader who shook his head as he surveyed the damage from the parking circle off St. Lo Drive in front of the school's entrance. He took a test in the library last week, and used it often, he said.

Ms. Mercer, who tracks student visits to the library, had recently completed her monthly report.

"There were 70 or 80 students a day visiting the library," she said. "This month, 1,270 students used our resources. I was skipping around saying that January was the biggest amount of students using it."

John Fischer of Belair-Edison brought his daughter to view the damage to his alma mater yesterday afternoon. Charred and soggy pages from books, broken ceiling fixtures, blackened metal tables and a shattered television could be seen in piles outside the building's lower level.

"It's a crying shame, it was the ultimate high school," said the 1978 graduate, who learned his floor-laying trade at the school.

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