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Shaker rules Fernway school fire cause as accidental, equipment-related

September 14, 2018

Shaker rules Fernway school fire cause as accidental, equipment-related

SHAKER HEIGHTS, Ohio -- City firefighters have ruled the cause of the July 10 fire resulting in extensive damage to Fernway Elementary School as accidental and equipment-related.

“The ignition source for this fire is either a worker using a torch in which direct flame contact ignited the wood, or a product failure with the tools or materials being used ignited the wood,” state the results of a nearly two-month investigation, released today (Friday, Sept. 14).

The wood in question was a board at the top of the masonry wall above the middle of the three flat roofs, at the point where the wall connects from the flat roof to the pitched roof over the east wing of the school.

In terms of a point of origin, the city’s Fire Investigation Unit determined that, based on fire patterns, the “first material ignited was the wood board that separated the roof from the masonry wall.”

The fire eventually caught on the east side toward the center section of the main roof, covering the three wings of the school, built in the 1920s.

Workers from Building Technicians, a subcontractor for the Garland Company had been using propane torches to heat up rolled asphalt to apply to the middle flat roof.

They had been working until about 10:45 a.m. on July 10 and were eating lunch at 11 when one of the workers still on the roof smelled and then saw smoke coming from the slate roof covering the left wing of the school.

He yelled down to other crew members on the ground to call the fire department as they evacuated the roof and got any school employees out of the building.

About 20 fire departments responded, with two firefighters injured and about 300,000 gallons of water used to bring the fire under control.

“Charring was present to the wood rafters and planks throughout most of the roof with areas of the roof collapsed onto the concrete roof deck,” Firefighter Charles Huddleston noted in the Shaker Fire Department’s investigative report noted.

As for a damage assessment, that is now in the hands of the school district’s insurance carrier. Installation of a temporary roof, which can be built over with a permanent one later, was set to be completed today.

The Shaker Heights school board will host a special meeting Tuesday (Sept. 18) in the high school to discuss the Fernway situation, with over 300 students attending other schools in the district for at least this school year and an architect hired last month to look at a major renovation.

In a statement issued Friday, Shaker Heights Mayor David Weiss said that next steps will include determining whether there are grounds for any legal action by the City as well as a review of local regulatory policy.

“In this case, that review will include an evaluation of ‘hot work’ methods used by roofing contractors in our City,” Weiss stated in the press release, referring to the use of a torch or other heating source to apply roofing materials.

Firefighters also determined that a small blaze on a different section of the Fernway rooftop the day before (on July 9) had been fully extinguished and was not connected to the major fire the next day.

In fact, after firefighters had conducted thermal imaging the day before to ensure nothing was smoldering then on the Fernway roof, an SHFD Fire Inspector followed up with an onsite visit around 10 a.m. on July 10 -- the day of the main fire.

“In the meantime, the evaluation, repairs and restoration at Fernway continue and we look forward to working with the schools as progress on Fernway proceeds,” Weiss added.
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