The Shock Lingers After Oklahoma Explosion As Officials Seek

By Linda Shalaway — March 17, 1982 13 min read
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The shock waves are still being felt here from the Jan. 19 blast that occurred when a hot-water tank exploded and ripped through the cafeteria of Star Elementary School in Spencer, Okla., killing a teacher and six students and injuring 34 others.

The tragedy posed both immediate and long-term challenges for Oklahoma City school officials. And it has shaken not only the local community, but school officials, parents, and legislators across the state and nation, raising perennial questions about prevention, physical-plant maintenance, and preparedness for which there may be no satisfactory answers.

It could have happened anywhere. But at 12:15 P.M. that Tuesday, while 60 of the school’s 270 students were eating lunch, the kind of wholly unforeseen catastrophe school officials dread struck Star School when an 80-gallon hot-water heater exploded, hitting the cafeteria wall with such force that it sent a shower of concrete, brick, pipe, and glass down on the students and their teachers.

“There is no way to prepare for something like this,” said Ray Webb, the school’s principal. “We sounded the exit-drill alarm immediately, and after that it was up to the teachers and students.”

Several passers-by who heard the explosion assisted teachers and students as the cafeteria and classrooms were evacuated. Within minutes, emergency vehicles and medical personnel from surrounding communities converged on the scene. The injured and dead were transported to five area hospitals, where emergency procedures were in effect. Parents were instructed to go to a nearby community center to wait for news of their children.

In subsequent days, while the community still struggled to cope with the turmoil and pain of the disaster, the process of investigation and appraisal began.

“You cannot afford to say this is an isolated incident and it won’t happen again,” said Oklahoma State Fire Marshal Jack Sanders, whose office is still looking into the cause of the explosion. “The entire inspection system for school buildings is inadequate--not only in Oklahoma City schools, but in schools all over the state and undoubtedly the country.”

According to Superintendent Thomas Payzant, the water heater had been reported as malfunctioning, and earlier that morning a maintenance crew had serviced the unit. The workmen were responding to complaints of a gas leak, which was never found. What they did find was a faulty gas burner, which the superintendent said was replaced.

Two Questions Asked

What happened to the unit’s safety valve and why the water temperature reached such a high level in the first place are two questions that the investigation is addressing.

Initial findings, however, indicate that a temperature probe in the relief valve was missing prior to the explosion. Also, said Assistant State Fire Marshal John Guest, the relief valve had been improperly installed by district maintenance personnel.

Mr. Guest said the faulty water heater has been examined at the U.S. Testing Laboratories in Tulsa. He estimated that the results of the fire marshal’s investigation would be made public at the end of last week.

Meanwhile, parents of children killed or injured in the blast have filed lawsuits alleging negligence against the district, the city, the manufacturers of the water tank, and the inspectors. To date, school officials have received 13 written notifications of claims to be made against the district. (Oklahoma law requires that written notification be given to defendants prior to the filing of a suit in the courts.)

“And I’m sure there will be more,” said Floyd Donwerth, president of the Oklahoma City school board.

Mr. Donwerth said the district is fully insured and noted that under state law, public-liability insurance covers damages of up to $300,000 for any one incident, including individual claims of as much as $25,000.

Parents and representatives of the teachers’ unions are currently seeking to pass legislation that would increase this $300,000 limit.

Ensuring Safety

One of the first tasks school officials faced after the blast was ensuring the safety of students and staff in the rest of the district’s 100 buildings. They immediately initiated a thorough inspection of every hot-water heater and boiler in the district. Assisting in this effort were inspection teams from the Oklahoma departments of health and labor.

These inspections uncovered problems in other schools as well, Mr. Payzant reported at a Feb. 1 meeting of the school board. The superintendent said that 36 steam boilers and 16 hot-water tanks were ordered shut down and repaired. And he noted that the district has hired licensed contractors to carry out the repairs. The shutdowns did not require the closings of any schools, he said.

As Mr. Payzant explained to the 100 or so people attending the board meeting, the district’s heating systems have always been checked annually by the companies insuring them.

“I am hopeful we will have legislation on more stringent requirements for these inspections,” Mr. Payzant said. “Until that time, we will conduct our own internal inspections and will ask state agencies to help us.”

Training Workshops

The main pressure relief valve will be replaced, he added, on all water heaters in the school system as a precautionary measure. The district, he said, is also initiating training workshops for the custodians responsible for operating boilers and heaters.

State legislators are already drafting a bill on improved inspection and building safety procedures. The proposed bill is expected to be endorsed by many groups, including the Oklahoma Federation of Teachers (oft).

“When that bill is assigned a number, we will get to work and make sure it has ‘teeth’ in it,” said David Renfro, oft president. “We want a bill that really means something. We are doing everything in our power to make sure this [the explosion] will never happen again, or at least will not happen out of neglect.”

In Oklahoma, Mr. Renfro explained, there are no uniform codes providing for routine inspections of schools. Furthermore, he said, existing safety codes frequently conflict with each other.

“In the case of hot-water heaters, for example, the city and county health codes require water hot enough to sterilize heating utensils in the school cafeteria,” he said. “But a tank with water that hot would be cited as a fire hazard by the state fire marshal.”

At least partially at fault in the Star case, some officials said, were the school’s own maintenance procedures.

Maintenance on ‘Back Burner’

“The main thing you have to do is think in terms of prevention,” said Mr. Payzant. “But because of our budget, we’ve never had the luxury of a completely adequate maintenance program. When the budget crunch comes, boards and administrators make the decision to put money into people--staff, instructional programs for students, and so on. The maintenance budget always gets put on the back burner.”

Budget problems or not, the district discovered that it will have to shoulder the expense of repairs and any rebuilding alone; there will be no financial help from either the state or federal government to help defray the costs of the accident, said Robert Martin, a physical-plant administrator forthe state department of education.

Under present law, the Oklahoma legislature can award a district up to $40,000 for the “total burnout” of a building, but that is the only form of assistance available, he explained.

However, said Mr. Martin, there is now a capital-outlay bill before the State House of Representatives that would earmark $24 million a year for the state’s schools, $4 million of which would be used for disaster assistance. Currently, the state provides no such funds.

‘Pinpoint Disaster’ Laws

At the federal level, Public Laws 874 and 815, known as “pinpoint disaster” laws, explained Mr. Martin, because they are designed to provide aid in very localized situations, like Star’s. But even though this is “law on the books,” he said, “it is not funded. So right now, there is nothing.”

Though local officials will bear the costs resulting from the accident, the issues of school maintenance and building improvements will be brought before Oklahoma City voters March 30 in the form of a $32.6-million school bond.

The March referendum, which was scheduled before the Star School accident, calls for the building of three replacement schools, additions to existing schools, improvements in electrical systems, additional energy-conservation measures, and general upgrading of buildings. Also proposed in the bond is the closing of the 46-year-old Star School.

Public emotions on the proposed school closing were mixed before the explosion, and they still are, Mr. Payzant noted. Some families in the community feel it is more important than ever to keep the neighborhood school, while others directly affected by the tragedy want the school shut down and “leveled to the ground,” in the words of one grieving parent.

The explosion will undoubtedly affect the outcome of the bond issue, but which way, school officials are not sure.

Teachers Reacted Calmly

The Star School explosion also raised the question of how prepared school personnel were for emergencies. And it provided one answer: Whatever their state of preparedness, the teachers involved reacted calmly and capably.

Local school officials and others commented publicly on the “excellent job” the teachers did in evacuating the building and tending to the children once they were outside.

“The [fire drill and tornado] procedures worked beautifully after the explosion,” said Mr. Webb, the school’s principal. “The teachers got the kids out and met at their assigned stations outside.” Mr. Webb added that no additional emergency training is planned for teachers.

“Our normal exit drills and security drills are adequate for most situations,” he said. “There is not much you can do when something blows up in your face.”

Said Mr. Payzant of the evacuation drills, “The procedures we already have are used very effectively. The staff is conscious of tornados, and children are given special instructions--such as how to protect their hands and face in the event of a tornado. Many of the children did this when the explosion occurred.”

But in the absence of any real emergency plans or even first-aid training requirements, many are wondering if teachers are adequately prepared for situations like the Star School explosion.

“Unequivocally no,” said Mr. Renfro, when asked if schools allow teachers and students enough time to practice emergency procedures. “What happened after the explosion was just pure reaction, not a coordinated effort.”

In earlier bargaining sessions with the district, Mr. Renfro pointed out, the oft had suggested that some type of disaster program be set up, particularly in light of the fact that the area is part of the tornado belt.

“We will again be bringing it up in the bargaining process,” he continued. “We want a program in emergency procedures, and we want a consistent program from school to school, so if teachers are transferred they’ll still know what to do.”

First Aid Training

“I do think that it would be a good idea to have training in some type of first aid, more than just a nurse to handle the whole school,” agreed Mr. Donwerth, who said instruction in cpr (cardio-pulmonary resuscitation) and other emergency procedures would be beneficial but should not be mandated by the school board. “I don’t want to make policemen out of these teachers,” he explained.

Safety and maintenance procedures aside, district administrators were faced with the more immediate task of getting students back in school following the blast. That meant finding a new location and, for the students of Diannah Monroe, the fourth-grade teacher killed in the accident, a new teacher.

The latter problem was solved by Lynne Dickinson, a former Star teacher who had moved to Topeka, Kan. Deeply affected by the tragedy, Ms. Dickinson volunteered to teach Ms. Monroe’s class for the remainder of the school year. She explained that she felt it would be better psychologically for the students if they had someone they already knew. Administrators heartily agreed.

School officials decided to house the students in portable classrooms at a nearby middle school. According to Mr. Payzant, it was expected to take at least a month before work crews could assess and repair damage to the structure and gas lines of the school, and that was too long to keep students out of class.

“Everybody felt it was important to keep the children together because they needed each other’s support,” said Mr. Payzant. “Also, we agreed with the teachers that it would be better to make just one move and not to use temporary facilities, so we decided to finish the year out in the portable classrooms.”

The “school” reopened on Jan. 29, with 244 of the 264 registered pupils in attendance. By this month, only two students, the cafeteria manager, and the head custodian were still out of school recovering from injuries. Only three children, all of whom lived outside school boundaries, have transferred to other schools, according to Mr. Webb.

Among the most significant tasks required of administrators in the wake of the explosion has been to address the emotional needs of the children, teachers, and parents involved. The district has made full-time counseling services available for families affected by the tragedy. In addition, school officials have compiled a list of professionals from the community--including doctors, psychologists, and psychiatrists--who have volunteered their time and services.

Psychological damage to the young students has apparently been minimal, according to Barbara Smith, the district’s elementary-school counselor. Ms. Smith, who was assigned to Star school full time for the first two weeks after classes resumed, reported that most of the children were “okay, just talking about it.”

Discussion Encouraged

The students have been encouraged to talk about the incident in classroom discussion periods, she said.

“Even in the hall, kids will come up to me and ask or tell me something about the explosion,” said Ms. Smith. “I’ve had to be a real good listener.”

The school’s staff members are also having weekly meetings with a local psychologist to discuss their feelings about the incident and to learn how to help their students approach the subject.

The school counselor said she has noted only a few emotional problems resulting from the incident. Several children, she said, were apprehensive at first about eating in the cafeteria at their new location. And one boy has cried and complained of stomachaches whenever it is time to go to school.

“But other than that, the students have adjusted quite well,” she added.

Local citizens have provided relief for the Star families in numerous ways. More than 1,000 people donated blood to local blood banks for children injured in the blast. A committee organized by a local bank has collected more than $38,000 to aid blast victims. The oft has provided several families with groceries and has made counseling services available to teachers and parents alike.

But for some, the aid and sympathy are not enough.

“We want answers,” demanded angry parents at a recent school board meeting. “How could this have happened?”

But along with the grief and anger has grown a new sense of unity and cooperation here. In the words of one parent, “The Star explosion also shattered the apathy in our community.”

“Contrary to what I’ve expected,” added Mr. Donwerth, “there has not been a lot of animosity. Instead, there is more of a feeling of a community pulling together and wanting to make sure this never happens again.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 17, 1982 edition of Education Week as The Shock Lingers After Oklahoma Explosion As Officials Seek


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