School fires set by same person, officials say Northern High hit twice since Monday

September 17, 1998|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Two smoky bathroom fires that have forced students to evacuate Northern High School twice since Monday and caused about $2,000 in damage might have been set by the same person, fire and school officials said yesterday.

The second fire occurred about 9: 20 a.m. yesterday in a first-floor boys' bathroom and kept students out of classrooms about one hour. Firefighters called for extra equipment and fans to blow smoke out of hallways.

Investigators reported no arrests yesterday and declined to say how the fires were started, saying it might hamper their ability to identify a suspect. The school, in the 2200 block of Pinewood Ave. in North Baltimore, has 1,800 students.

A fire reported Friday evening was set in a trash can in the basement boiler room and is not related to the other two, officials said.

Monday's fire was started in several different parts of the same bathroom. "That points to arson," said Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres, a department spokesman. The fires on Monday and yesterday were set in the same room, and no injuries were reported.

"It's always a concern anytime there's a disruption in the school day," said Northern's principal, Helena Nobles-Jones. "I'm concerned about the child who may do something like this. I'm also concerned about the loss of instruction time."

The first fire attributed to the arsonist broke out about 1 p.m. Monday. Torres said someone set fire to a plastic paper-towel dispenser and a plastic soap dispenser.

Officials said more fire engines than usual responded to the call. "The school must have been charged with a substantial amount of smoke, and they needed to dispel that as quickly as they could," Torres said.

Torres said the paper towel dispenser again was set on fire in the second suspected arson.

While the fires were small, Torres said, there is a potential for danger. "If a fire was to escalate beyond that bathroom and large volumes of smoke were to permeate that school, obviously there's a life-safety hazard," he said.

Nobles-Jones said the fires appeared more severe than they were because of the plastic towel dispensers. Burning plastic gives off a lot of smoke, and the principal said the school is working to replace them with metal ones.

School officials have described the building's fire alarm and fire suppression system as "poor" -- rating the suppression equipment as significantly below average. But school district spokeswoman Vanessa Pyatt said that is because the systems were installed in 1965, when the building was constructed.

"By today's standards, they are old and antiquated and should be replaced," Pyatt said. "But they are functioning."

Torres said fire inspectors were in the building on Aug. 17 and deemed everything in working order. "There are no problems in terms of fire protection in terms of the school," he said.

Pub Date: 9/17/98

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