Probe reveals inadequate ventilation before gym fire that killed 2 workers


Workers at Westport Elementary School, where two people died and two others were burned Sunday in a flash fire, failed to open windows to provide adequate ventilation for the solvent they were using to refinish a gymnasium floor, Baltimore Fire Department investigators have found.

Lt. Thurman O. Pugh, a Fire Department spokesman, said yesterday that the workers also failed to follow instructions on the solvent can that advised using the liquid on no more than 4 square feet of floor at a time to avoid excessive fumes. The solvent, called Park's Liquid Strip, was used on far larger sections of the gym floor at the South Baltimore school, survivors said.

The six school system maintenance employees on the job had opened the windows Saturday, but closed them overnight and failed to reopen them when they began work Sunday morning, Lieutenant Pugh said. The vapors exploded shortly before 10 a.m. Sunday, when one of the employees -- fire investigators still are not certain which one -- struck a match to light a cigar.

In addition to the Fire Department, state and city occupational health and safety investigators are probing the fire, officials said.

Glen S. Middleton, president of Local 44 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the union representing the maintenance workers, yesterday criticized the school system for failing to provide ventilation fans on the Westport job and for what he called inadequate training.

"You need highly trained people to strip floors," Mr. Middleton said. "These custodians were not properly trained."

Killed in the fire were Juanita Barnes, 52, and Adam Tolandis, 46, both veteran supervisors in the school maintenance department.

One worker, William Meyers, suffered severe burns over 90 percent of his body and remained in critical condition last night at the regional burn center at Francis Scott Key Medical Center, a hospital spokeswoman said.

The second injured worker, Raymond Berkley, was listed at Key in stable condition with burns to his legs, the spokeswoman said.

Westport Elementary, which suffered $520,000 worth of damage, will remain closed to students today, said school system spokeswoman Donna Frank. Staff should report to the places they worked yesterday, she said.

"The goal is to have the kids back in school there or somewhere else by the end of the week," Ms. Frank said.

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