Blaze damages Atholton High

Suspected arson closes the school for a day

nine classrooms damaged

March 09, 2004|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

A suspected arson set before dawn yesterday in a math classroom at Columbia's Atholton High School triggered the sprinkler system, causing water damage to eight other classrooms and forcing the cancellation of classes for the day.

"Somebody broke into the math wing of the school" through a window, said schools spokeswoman Patti Caplan. And while the security alarms were blaring, "they managed to get a fire started in one of the classrooms" before police and fire crews arrived about 4:30 a.m.

No suspects were found, and police said the investigation is continuing.

Howard County police spokeswoman Sherry Llewellyn said a school sprinkler alarm, triggered after the fire was set, alerted dispatch authorities at 4:24 a.m. Fire officials responded immediately, she said, and found that the sprinklers, which went off in one classroom only, had extinguished the fire.

The arson investigation unit -- a team of fire and police officials -- was notified, Llewellyn said, declining to offer any more information. She asked anyone with information to call 410-313-3700.

Staff members were asked to report to the building yesterday, but students stayed home while crews mopped up the water, which seeped into the hall and eight other classrooms. Damage to carpets, computers and supplies is expected to total between $10,000 and $30,000, Caplan said, but the figures could rise as labor is factored in.

More than a half-dozen large, white Department of Education vans were parked in front of Atholton yesterday morning, with workers hauling vacuums and other cleanup equipment into the school. Inside, donuts were laid out on tables in front of the main office, where Principal Connie Lewis sat, reviewing papers and refusing to talk.

"I'm not saying anything right now," she said, waiting for clearance from investigators.

Thomas Kierzkowski, director of school facilities, said that between 15 and 20 people were repainting, inspecting plumbing and checking electrical wires in preparation for today's expected reopening.

"It's about 80 percent cleaned up as we speak," he said in the early afternoon. "The only thing that remains is taking the old carpet out."

Replacement glass has been ordered and should take about two days to arrive, Kierzkowski, said, but a temporary barrier will be installed in the meantime.

Kierzkowski said someone made several attempts to start fires, using some sort of accelerant, which he declined to identify.

This is the second major vandalism incident for Howard County schools this academic year, said Debby O'Boyle, who works in the school system's office of safety, environment and risk management. In October, someone stole a piece of lift equipment used to give an aerial view in filming football games and drove it through River Hill High School property, causing "extensive damage throughout," O'Boyle said -- about $14,000 worth.

Two years ago, an Ellicott City man drove heavy construction equipment through Bellows Spring Elementary, causing more than $100,000 in damage, which may be the worst the county has ever seen.

"We always have vandalism items going on," O'Boyle said. "Those were the biggest."

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