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School Wall Collapses in Storm, Killing Seven Students

November 17, 1989

NEWBURGH, N.Y. (AP) _ A school cafeteria wall collapsed during a severe thunderstorm Thursday, toppling concrete blocks onto lunching pupils and killing seven of them, authorities said. Eighteen others were injured, four critically.

″It was a very quick thing and there wasn’t anything anybody could do about it because it happened all at once,″ said Donald Presutti, mayor of the city of Newburgh, about five miles east of the school and 60 miles north of New York City.

From 113 to 125 students in first, second and third grades were in the cafeteria when the storm struck East Coldenham Elementary School about 12:30 p.m., said Newburgh Police Chief John Kulisek.

″You are talking about huge concrete blocks that fell on top of the kids,″ state police Lt. Robert Hughes said.

The storm system was the same one that moved through the South on Wednesday, spinning off tornadoes that killed 17 people in Alabama.

State Police and survivors said they believed the school was hit by a tornado, but the National Weather Service said it could not confirm that until investigators went to the scene.

The seven dead students were identified Thursday night by New York State Police as Amy Innis, 8; Joanna Lichtler, 7; Larae Litchhult, 8; Peter Orsino, 8; Charles J. Scotto, 7; Adam J. Soltis, 7 and Maria J. Stuhmer, 8.

At St. Luke’s Hospital in Newburgh, two children were in critical condition, three were in guarded condition and four were listed as satisfactory, spokeswoman Debra Sgroe said. Two others were treated and released.

A 7-year-old girl and a 6-year-old boy taken to Westchester County Medical Center in Valhalla were in critical condition with injuries to the head and elsewhere, said hospital spokesman Barry Bowman.

One child was in serious condition at Cornwall Hospital, one was in fair condition and one was treated and released, a spokesperson said. Two others were treated and released from two other hospitals.

Sgroe said several residents came to St. Luke’s Hospital and offered to donate blood. Crisis counselors were meeting with the families of the dead and injured at the hospital, she said.

″There are a lot of broken legs, broken ankles, arms, some head contusions, various other traumas to the body,″ the mayor said. ″The wall was blown down and they were in having lunch. It was right during lunch time.″

Only the center section of the wall collapsed. Cinder blocks extended about 20 feet up the wall and were topped by 5 to 7 feet of windows. The windows were blown out and the blocks toppled into the cafeteria where students were sitting at tables.

″I saw a tornado come and I saw everything flying down,″ said one youngster, Brian Schwartz. ″It looked like a tornado. All kinds of glass fell down and these little things, papers that were hanging on the windows, came down. I didn’t even look back.″

Bill Larkin, a state Assemblyman whose district includes Montgomery, said he believed a tornado hit the school. He noted that a willow tree was uprooted in the yard of a home next door to the school, about 100 yards away.

″That building has been there since 1961. If it had hit the house instead of the building, it would have torn the house apart,″ Larkin said. There was little other damage in the area, with only a few trees knocked over and some branches downed.

A nearby resident said he helped firefighters pull bricks and other rubble off children.

″The second kid I had in my arms wanted to go to his mom, and he was crying,″ Vincent Sitko said.

Police, firefighters and rescue workers worked in the cafeteria by spotlight Thursday night to clear debris and shore up the wall. Classes were cancelled for Friday throughout the Valley Central School District.

Christopher Carpenter, a spokesman for the state Education Department, said the state would send a structural engineer and an architect to the site Friday to determine what happened. Ciro DiLorenzo, building inspector for the town of Newburgh, said there was too much damage to determine immediately if the building was structurally sound.

The storm system roared up the Atlantic Coast on Thursday, accompanied by tornadoes, high wind and heavy rain. At least one person was killed in New Jersey by the storm.

Utility workers clocked winds at 58 mph in the Newburgh area during the storm.

The weather service had posted a tornado watch Thursday for large parts of the East Coast from Maryland to New England, including the Newburgh area and metropolitan New York.

A tornado warning, a more urgent advisory, was posted for Westchester County, one of the counties between New York and Newburgh.

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