High school's fire loss estimated at $500,000

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 shelves and placed flowers.

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 was 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."

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.

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

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