The Valdez Star - Serving Prince William Sound and Copper River Basin

By Lee Revis
Editor, Valdez Star 

Fire contained quickly at Hermon Hutchens school

No smoke detectors are currently at the elementary school gym


A teacher working off hours at Hermon Hutchens Elementary School Sunday afternoon is credited with stopping a potential catastrophe after discovering a machine used by contractors to vacuum sawdust from the gym’s floor had caught on fire.

The teacher, Tom Stoltz, in turn credits the Valdez Fire Dept. with saving the day.

“The fire department did a great job of getting there fast,” Stoltz said after agreeing to do an interview Monday.

According to the initial press release issued by district superintendent Jacob Jensen, George Keeney, Valdez Fire Chief, extinguished the blaze, which was shooting flames four feet into the air, with a dry chemical extinguisher.

In written communications, Stoltz called the fire department’s response amazing, and noted Keeney arrived on the scene in five to six minutes, with no less than 10 firefighters on the scene within 10 minutes.

Keeney credits Stoltz, teacher Linda Guthrie and the crews of the Valdez Fire Dept. with saving the school.

“It could have taken the whole building down,” Keeney said in an interview Tuesday morning.

The fire burned through the wood floor and melted the insulation underneath it according to Jensen, damaging an area approximately 3.5 by 3.5 feet in size. The contractor had repaired the damage by late afternoon. Little or no smoke damage was reported.

Ironically, the contractors were sanding the floor and applying new protective coats of polyurethane nearly a year after the gym’s sprinkler system malfunctioned and caused extensive damage to the floor, which had just been refinished by the same contractors.

Chris Karna, a maintenance worker at the school, repaired the damage to the then-newly finished floor.

“He wanted the professionals to come in” and finish the job, Jensen said. “They were coming to put two more coats on the whole thing.”

In a further twist, the school’s sprinkler system did not go into action during the actual fire and Jensen was unsure why it did not activate.

“The short answer is, we’re not sure,” Jensen said. “It’s actually good it didn’t go off. The floor isn’t ruined.”

Perhaps more disturbing is the fact the school’s fire alarm also failed to activate during the incident, which was called into the fire department at approximately 4:15 p.m.

“We’re going to get in there and investigate,” Jensen said.

Keeney said the school’s fire alarm system did not activate because there are no actual smoke detectors in the school’s gymnasium; the nearest smoke detector in relation to that area of the school is in the front office. The fire suppression system did not activate to put out the fire because the system is the type that relies on a fire’s heat to melt a portion of the system that in turn allows the sprinklers to release water onto the fire below.

“The fire would have to be pretty high” before such melting occurred Keeney said.

Stoltz, who is head of the preschool’s special education department, said he had originally planned to spend Sunday afternoon watching the NCAA college basketball selection show but decided a report he had due was more important and headed back to class despite the fact Spring Break was barely half over.

He said at one point, a vague smell of burning wood wafted into his classroom, but he knew contractors were sanding a portion of the gym’s floor and knew from past experience that sanding wood could produce a slight burning odor. But the smell intensified and a light haze of smoke began to appear. He searched the building to look for the source, but found nothing.

“I didn’t check the gym because I thought other people were there,” he said.

When he did check the gym, the doors were locked and he could see flames two to three feet high coming out of the machine. He called 911 and Keeney arrived quickly and extinguished the initial fire himself.

“I noticed if I could get in there in a hurry I could knock it (the fire) down,” without the aid of protective gear, Keeney said.

Photo Courtesy Jacob Jensen

Work to repair the fire damage to the gym’s floor began right away.

Fire crews – properly clad in protective gear – followed up to make sure the fire was not left smoldering and also performed tests to make sure no toxic gases were present.

The lack of a smoke detector in the gymnasium is not a code violation, Keeney noted, unless anyone is allowed to sleep in the facility.

“If there’s sleeping at all in there, there’s got to be smoke detectors,” he said.

Keeney said the fire department will be urging city and school officials to install smoke detectors in the elementary school gym, and the in the new gym that will be constructed in the new middle school.

According to Jensen, the gymnasium floor will be ready for use when school resumes after Spring Break.


Reader Comments

schoolsmarts writes:

I wonder what Stolz was doing for those 5-6 minutes before Keeney showed up. There are several ways into the gym and it doesn't take a genius to operate a fire extinguisher.


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