Fire Down Below

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On the coldest day of the new year, Anthony Grosso rounds a corner in Queens and spots his destination right away, without even looking at the building. He can tell from halfway down the block that he has found IS 119 because of the battered metal containers, painted a dull red, lined up along the curb.

Not trash cans. Ashcans.

"When you see all the ashcans outside, you know it's our school," says Grosso, a project manager for the New York City School Construction Authority.

Once, these cans full of gray-brown cinders must have been as familiar a sight as milk bottles on the back porch or classroom desks made of wood. But in the 21st century, they don't seem to belong—a feeling that grows even stronger as Grosso leads the way inside the four-story school and down to the basement.

There, in a dimly lighted room whose gray walls once were white, is a big pile of coal—tons of it—and a man with a shovel.

On a cold day at IS 119 in Queens, Aurelio Castro will shovel more than two tons of coal into the antiquated boilers, which date from the school's construction in 1928.

With the temperature outside hovering around 10 degrees, Aurelio Castro is a busy man. He estimates that before the bell rings at 3:00, he'll feed some 4,200 pounds of coal into the massive cast-iron boilers that deliver steam heat throughout the building.

Normally, he comes in at 6 a.m. to stir the glowing embers—carefully banked the night before—and stoke the fires to get heat up before the children arrive. "But if it's a cold day like today, I start at 3 o'clock in the morning," says the 43-year-old stoker, or fireman, as they are called.

A deep metal bucket hangs from a steel track suspended from the ceiling, and he uses it to haul the black, dusty lumps from the storage room, 550 pounds at a time.

A compact, soft-spoken man who has been doing this job for eight years, Castro says he's not really tired after a day like this, even though he'll move more than two tons of coal and ash. Nevertheless, he's glad this will be the last winter he'll spend his days tending the hungry fires.

Sometime in the next few weeks, if all goes as planned, Grosso's workmen will come in and tear out a wall of the basement, break the 72-year-old boilers up into pieces, and haul them away. They'll replace the coal- burning dinosaurs with modern gas- and oil-fired systems, and Aurelio Castro may have to join a gym, since all he'll be doing to keep the building heated is throw a few switches each morning. "I tell the firemen they're going to have pot bellies," Grosso says.

Ashcans line the curb outside IS 119. The soot from the boilers is often unwelcome in residential neighborhoods, and the fumes from burning coal can pose a health hazard for students.

While coal remains a major energy source for the generation of electricity worldwide, the use of coal- fired boilers as an individual source of heat or power died out in this country decades ago. The U.S. Navy converted the last of its ships to oil in the early 1930s, and the Union Pacific Railroad retired its coal-burning locomotives in the 1950s.

But there are still about 130 schools in New York City, and a few scattered elsewhere around the country, that rely on coal-fired boilers. Detroit, for example, also has a few.

The coal boilers are costly, a source of pollution, and can produce fumes that are dangerous to students. "Coal gas can be harmful," says Grosso, "and the soot coming out of the chimney is not exactly welcome in the neighborhood."

But often, the heating systems aren't the only things in these schools that need to be fixed or renovated.

As in many Northern cities, New York's schools are old, and they are showing their age. "I can show you a school that was used as a hospital in the Civil War," Grosso says. More than half the system's 1,100 schools were built before 1949—Intermediate School 119 dates to 1928.

They need wiring for the Internet and ramps for disabled students. The roofs often leak, and many are severely overcrowded.

As a result, despite widespread agreement for years that the coal boilers have to go, the process of replacing them has often dragged amid a scarcity of funding and competing priorities. Right now, though, it is a high priority, Grosso says.

About 40 schools were switched over last year and about 40 more projects are on the books this fiscal year. The School Construction Authority hopes to finish the job completely in the next four years.

The man charged with meeting that goal is Grosso, a mechanical engineer who spent 28 years in the private sector before joining the agency in 1992. In his current job, he has to be part engineer, part diplomat, and part politician.

At IS 119, for example, an oak tree stands outside the building directly in front of the wall where the new boilers need to go in. Grosso uses the visit to smooth the feathers of the acting principal, who has heard that the old tree might have to go. "I'm not gonna cut that tree down," Grosso reassures him.

Throughout the day, his cell phone and beeper ring constantly with calls from school construction sites or schools that, for one reason or another, don't have heat. "I've been doing this for years," he says, "and the first cold day, it's always the same."

Down in the basement, he talks with the school's custodian, Roman Mirecki, about what to expect when the conversion work begins.

Mirecki is concerned about the reliability of the new system. One thing about the coal boilers and Aurelio Castro, he says, is that they're dependable. "As long as he's here, you have heat," Mirecki says of his fireman.

But the custodian acknowledges that he'll have plenty of work for Castro when the new system is installed. "I like the building clean," Mirecki says proudly.

Roman Mirecki, the custodian at IS 119, likes the coal-storage room and the boiler room kept tidy. "Last year, we used just under 300 tons," he says. "This year, we didn't order a full load," because the boilers are scheduled to be removed.

While the basement of IS 119 is as clean as an area full of 300 tons of coal can be, Grosso acknowledges that many others aren't. And, as with the oak tree, each job poses its own set of challenges, some of which don't crop up until work has begun: hidden structural defects, ductwork loaded with soot, asbestos. Removing the cancer-causing substance is a major concern: "Usually, that's a large portion of the cost, typically about $100,000," Grosso says.

And there are other problems posed by construction at a school that don't crop up in other jobs. The buildings can't be shut down or evacuated for days at a time. They need heat from a temporary boiler while the old system is removed and the new one is installed. And there can be no noisy or dangerous work during school hours—"nothing that will disrupt the school's activities," says Grosso, who grew up in the Bronx and is himself a product of the New York City public schools.

At PS 139, Anthony Grosso shows off the new gas- and oil-fired heating system, which replaced the coal boilers about a year ago. The new systems, he says, are safer, cleaner, and less expensive to operate.

At Public School 129, a few miles away in a working-class Queens neighborhood, the conversion job is about 60 percent done. Here, too, Grosso engages in a little schmoozing with the school administrators, who can't get anyone from the district to come out and install an electrical outlet.

He says he'll see what he can do.

Though the rest of the school is warm, thanks to a temporary boiler outside, the basement itself is frigid, with only a plastic tarp covering the knocked-out wall where the shiny new boilers were brought in.

The walls of the old bunker are still visible, blackened with decades of coal dust. Much of that space will be taken up by a special room to house an 8,000-gallon oil tank, which provides backup fuel for the main system run on natural gas.

Jobs like this require a main contractor, Grosso says, ticking off a list of the subcontractors needed as well: demolition, concrete work, plumbing, electricity, and the temporary boilers. In addition, a vast array of government agencies are involved in the permit- granting and inspection process: the building department, environmental-control inspectors, the fire department, the school board, local utility companies, and, if the job involves blocking off streets, even the traffic police. "There's an accumulation of paperwork like you've never seen," Grosso says.

Peter Navetta, the fireman at PS 139, misses the daily workout from shoveling coal. But, he adds, "this frees time for me to do other stuff around the building."

The whole process usually costs about $1.5 million to $2 million per school and takes about six months. At PS 129, a four-story building that serves about 750 students in grades K-6, fireman Ibo Ozcan says he'll be glad when the whole thing is over. Then, he'll come in, throw a few switches, and within a few minutes, heat. "It's better than shoveling coal," he says.

His colleague over at PS 139, another 1920s-era school in Queens that converted to gas and oil about a year ago, isn't so sure. "I miss it," says fireman Peter Navetta, 26. "It was definitely a good workout."

But he acknowledges that he now has more time for his other work. "I had to come down here every 10 or 15 minutes" to stoke the boilers, he recalls. "Now, I come down to check two or three times a day."

The most noticeable difference in the basement at this school is the noise. The gas fires, visible through a tiny window beneath the boiler, make a roaring sound like a blowtorch.

The other difference is the room's orderly appearance, and Grosso is clearly proud of the finished product. He points out the various safety equipment designed to avoid an explosion or gas leaks, and in the room that houses the oil tank, the special paint on the floor that is designed to contain the oil if the tank should rupture.

Gas pipes are painted yellow, the oil pipes are orange, and the new boilers are bright blue. The walls have a new coat of white paint, and the concrete floor looks as if it was just mopped. "We try to paint the room and leave the job looking nice," Grosso says. And, he adds,"I didn't lose a tree on this school either."

Librarian Kathryn Dorko contributed to this report.

Vol. 19, Issue 22, Pages 32-37

Published in Print: February 9, 2000, as Fire Down Below
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