Precautions weren't enough to stop girl's scalding at school 7-year-old injured in Hazelwood accident is recovering at home

September 16, 1996|By Jean Thompson, Marcia Myers and Kate Shatzkin | Jean Thompson, Marcia Myers and Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

When classes resumed this month at Hazelwood Elementary-Middle School, Ashley Moore was not among her second-grade classmates, but she was not forgotten.

She is confined to home, undergoing physical therapy for scarring over the length of her body, the constant reminder of a school accident caused by a malfunctioning water heater in June.

Over at Hazelwood, educators cannot erase the memory of her screams from their hearts.

Discomfited, too, are officials at school headquarters, who did not send help immediately when Hazelwood employees called during the emergency.

The accident prompted state regulators to inspect boiler rooms in more than three dozen city schools, where they uncovered numerous code violations, including improper equipment, missing safety devices and unsafe repairs, according to documents described in The Sun yesterday.

Now, in interviews and documents, state regulators say that Hazelwood's accident could have been prevented. This is an account of the tragedy that prompted their investigation:

First signs of trouble

Tuesday, June 18, was meant to be a joy-filled day for the Hazelwood school community, on the edge of Hamilton in Northeast Baltimore.

Graduating eighth-graders and their proud parents streamed into the building for year-end festivities.

It was a morning for showing off, for exchanged congratulations and best wishes.

The first signs of trouble intruded about 9: 30 a.m.

School custodian George Williams learned that steam was escaping from beneath a sink in a girls restroom. It was an odd sight; even when hot water is running, steam is not expected.

What was happening, school officials would learn later, was that superhot water was pumping through the building's pipes, building up pressure that would stress the plumbing and equipment -- and endanger children, teachers and parents.

According to state investigators' reconstruction of the accident, obtained by The Sun, Williams quickly phoned the school system's building engineers to report an "extreme emergency."

On the first try, he was referred to an office that dispatches school repair and maintenance teams.

State reports say an employee there told Williams that "he didn't know if he could get someone to the school that day, and that if he could it would be later in the day, and that they would have to bill the school."

Williams kept trying, state documents show. He called again, this time leaving a message for a supervisor, whose secretary called back saying someone would come.

The school, meanwhile, was teeming with visitors.

About 10 a.m., a parent walked her child to a drinking fountain on the first floor. The water flowed hot instead of cool.

The mother rushed to the office to warn school secretary Audrey McConkey that the water "was so hot it could have burned the child's mouth."

A few minutes later, in a different part of the building, a second school visitor went to a fountain and encountered hot water.

Principal Edith Harrison was at commencement in the Gardenville Recreation Center, which occupies a rear wing of the school building.

McConkey quickly broadcast a warning over the public address system: "Teachers and students, do not use water fountains -- water is extremely hot."

The office staff did not know then that the problem was much more threatening -- and more widespread. Its power was potentially devastating, not just because it could scald, but because it could cause an explosion.

In the basement of the Northeast Baltimore school, an automatic control switch on the building's water heater had failed, state inspectors' reports show.

It allowed the gas burner under the heater to fire relentlessly, until the water in the school's pipes approached temperatures of 200 to 300 degrees. Hot water lines to school sinks were affected. And as the pressure increased with the temperature, the heat also slid up the cold water pipes toward drinking fountains and toilets.

A valve was supposed to bar hot from mixing with cold, but somehow the superhot water had crossed the barrier.

Another valve, a safety device, was supposed to blow steam and pour overheated water from the heater onto the floor. That valve is now missing; it may have been ineffective.

About 10: 05 a.m., a school visitor told the custodian that hot water was in a toilet.

In the main office, another visitor was asking to use the restroom. She was directed to the one in the office.

Minutes later, McConkey told state investigators, she heard a "boom sound."

The visitor "came running out of the restroom yelling that her arm was burned by hot water from the toilet. Her clothes were wet and [she] said she needed ice to rub on her arm, which was red," the investigators wrote. She left without leaving her name.

Alarmed, McConkey broadcast a second warning to stay out of restrooms and avoid drinking fountains.

The custodian, meanwhile, found Principal Harrison, who immediately called the school system facilities department. She was told someone was on the way.

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