Taking chances with children's lives Bad boilers: School accident that left little girl scarred by hot water was preventable.

September 17, 1996

BLAME FOR the tragedy that sent a 7-year-old child screaming down the halls of Hazelwood School with burns up and down her back may start with the school. But responsibility ends at North Avenue, where administrators cutting corners with a budget that keeps shrinking have been ignoring aging hot-water systems that long ago should have been repaired or replaced.

Ashley Moore was seriously burned June 18 when the school's hot-water heater sent scalding water and steam to the toilet she flushed. There had been earlier signs of the trouble, hot water coming from water fountains and from a toilet in another bathroom. Principal Edith Harrison repeatedly warned over the public address system that the school's plumbing should not be used. Warning signs were posted on some bathroom doors and at water fountains. Those efforts were not sufficient. At least one child who needed to use the bathroom did.

It could have been worse. Six children and a teacher were killed in 1982 when an Oklahoma school's hot-water heater exploded. But that blast occurred only minutes after steam was seen coming from a cafeteria tap. Ashley was burned nearly two hours after the first signs of trouble. That's when her school's custodian tried to get help by calling in an "extreme emergency" to school-system building engineers. But all he got was a dispatcher who didn't know when anyone could come to Hazelwood.

Ashley might not have been burned if an engineer had come to the phone to tell the custodian how to find the shut-off valve to the hot-water heater. Apparently no one thought to call Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. for advice.

But the fuse leading to the events that day was lighted long before Ashley was burned. The defective water heater -- evidence that, by the way, is now missing -- apparently was never inspected. And a state investigation shows at least 42 other city schools have hot-water systems with major problems -- from inaccessible safety valves to corroded parts -- that any legitimate inspection should have uncovered.

The school system maintenance budget has been cut from $62 million to $42 million since last year, but maintenance chief Anthony A. Fears insists safety remains the top priority. That's hard to believe. If true, it wouldn't have taken the burning of a child to get officials to promise to do something about the schools' dangerous hot-water heaters and boilers.

Pub Date: 9/17/96

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