City produces 'missing' boiler School officials knew heater's whereabouts even as state sought it

September 25, 1996|By Kate Shatzkin and Marcia Myers | Kate Shatzkin and Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

Baltimore school officials yesterday produced a hot water heater that mysteriously disappeared after an accident that severely burned a first-grader in June, admitting they have known its whereabouts for at least two weeks without alerting the state investigators who sought it.

State regulators examined the heater at a Baltimore City schools workshop yesterday after receiving a tip that it was there. They say the equipment vanished from Hazelwood Elementary-Middle School in August after being labeled as evidence in an investigation of the burning of 7-year-old Ashley Moore.

State boiler inspectors had placed a "red tag" on the heater that warned it should not be removed from Hazelwood. But yesterday, school officials said they knew where the heater was all along -- and didn't think it necessary to tell the regulators, saying the heater was "never missing."

Anthony A. Fears, who heads management services for the schools, said yesterday that he has known the boiler's whereabouts for "at least" two weeks, but said he did not notify state inspectors because "they didn't ask."

Fears said he was unaware of two letters regulators sent to his facilities chief saying portions of the heater -- and later all of it -- were missing. But he acknowledged reading recent stories in The Sun, in which regulators were quoted as saying the heater was missing and that they were considering criminal charges for tampering with a state investigation.

"That's where it's been all the time," Fears said of the heater. "The state hasn't inquired of me where it was. I have not even communicated with the state at all.

"As far as I know, there is no problem between us and the state."

A spokeswoman for the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, which is investigating the accident, said yesterday inspectors had made it clear throughout that they considered the heater missing, and that they wanted to examine it to determine the cause of the accident.

"A red tag says, 'Do not remove this equipment,' " said the spokeswoman, Karen Napolitano. "It's very plain. That was on the hot water heater. It's still on it today. Definitely we've let them know we felt it was missing. I'm not sure why they're telling you something else."

Regulators say the heater had no operating certificate and that there was no record of its being inspected. Napolitano said regulators are considering seeking criminal charges in connection with the disappearance of the heater and the fact that it had no certificate.

Both Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and schools Superintendent Walter G. Amprey said yesterday they saw no need for an internal investigation into why school officials apparently didn't tell regulators where the boiler was. "It's my understanding that the state and the city are working together on this matter," Schmoke said through a spokesman.

State chief boiler inspector Myron H. Diehl Jr. twice informed Wilbur C. Giles, director of the schools facilities department, that pieces of the hot water heater were being kept from his inspectors -- once in a July 3 letter and again on Sept. 5, according to documents obtained by The Sun.

In the July letter, Diehl referred to the disappearance of controls and the nameplate from the heater as a "serious violation of state law." But Giles said yesterday that he never received the July letter, and that he read the Sept. 5 letter only Monday.

He said he called Diehl yesterday to discuss how the schools would resolve their problems with boiler inspections. When he did so, Giles said, Diehl mentioned that he had heard that the heater was sitting in the schools' maintenance shop at 2221 Garrett Ave. The inspectors arrived at the shop at 1 p.m. After examining the equipment in a caged storage area at the rear of the shop, inspectors were satisfied that it was the Hazelwood heater and left, with plans to return, said Napolitano.

"There has never been any attempt by us to try to hide any piece of equipment," Giles said. "There's nothing for us to gain by hiding it, whether it was certified or not."

Abram M. Freedland, an engineer in the school facilities department who was at the shop yesterday when inspectors arrived, admitted approving the move of the heater from behind the school. But he said he was unaware of orders from the state not to move the heater.

In fact, Freedland said, he was trying to preserve the evidence by bringing it inside. He was worried that thieves would make off with the copper on the equipment.

After the heater was moved, he said, "Nobody asked me about it."

State inspectors first heard that the heater was being kept at the Garrett Avenue shop late last week after a maintenance worker came forward and told them about it, sources said.

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