Fire officials to investigate evacuation of Anne Arundel school by principal; Questions are raised about speed of actions after gas leak reported


Fire officials are unhappy about the way administrators handled an evacuation Tuesday at Crofton Middle School when the building filled with natural gas and have opened an investigation.

Principal Richard Berzinski said he thought "things were handled the way it should have been handled," but investigators have called into question the speed and the manner in which he acted. Children were inside the school when the first fire units arrived.

School officials also discovered that lights on the fire alarms intended to warn deaf pupils of danger did not work.

"Our procedure is we advise them to evacuate anytime there's a hazard in the structure," said Chief John Scholz, spokesman of the county EMS/Fire/Rescue. "It's my understanding that the principal did not evacuate until we arrived. Folks from the fire marshal's office are speaking to the principal to find out the circumstances. We don't know the process behind what the principal was thinking."

Eighty pupils complained to the school nurse about dizziness and nausea related to fumes.

A pupil and a teacher who complained were treated at Anne Arundel Medical Center after school and released, the chief said.

Ken Nichols, director of instruction for the county schools, said someone reported an odor near the gymnasium shortly before 10: 30 a.m.

Before Berzinski checked on it, he asked secretaries and assistants to call the fire department, Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., the company that handles the security monitoring system and an environmental specialist.

When the principal returned from the gym, he decided to clear the 964-pupil school, but he announced the evacuation over the public address system instead of pulling the fire alarm. An assistant principal who called 911 was told by emergency dispatchers to evacuate the building. When the fire units arrived, pupils were inside.

Berzinski used the public address system, Nichols said, because the alarms don't work in portable classrooms. He also wanted pupils to gather coats because he thought they might be outside a long time, Nichols said.

Six minutes elapsed from the time the assistant principal spoke with dispatchers until the evacuation, Nichols said.

"My read on it is the fire department has some real concerns about the process and procedure," he said. "The fire department does not think we evacuated quickly enough."

Pub Date: 1/28/99

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