As Anniversary of Lightning Strike Passes, South Tower at New Rochelle High School Still Not Repaired

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As Anniversary of Lightning Strike Passes, South Tower at New Rochelle High School Still Not Repaired

August 16, 2009 - 20:30


Yesterday, August 15th, marks the one-year anniversary of the lightning strike which triggered a fire which gutted the South Tower at New Rochelle High School. Yet for reasons that have not been adequately explained the work to repair the damage is still not complete. During the recent Board of Education meeting on August 4th, Schools Superintendent Richard Organisciak was asked to explain the delay but could not or would not. Instead, Organisciak dissembled, saying that while interior work on the South Tower had been completed the roof was being built separately and was going to be lowered on top of the tower by a helicopter some time in the next month.

What he failed to mention was that most of the work on the interior of the South Tower was completed before the beginning of the previous school year. As is typically the case with the superintendent, his mouth was moving, noises were coming out of it, but he wasn't responding to the question he was asked. He was then reminded that he had been asked to explain why, when Assistant Superintendent John Quinn had stated in a memo last August that the goal was to have the new roof in place before "year-end", the new roof was still not in place. Once again, instead of answering the question he described the work which still remained to be done.

Looking back at Quinn's memo from last year, the use of the phrase "year-end" could be taken to mean the end of the calendar year, or the end of the school year were or at the end of one years time. When the memo was circulated, I believe most people understood Mr. Quinn to mean that the South Tower would be completely rebuilt before the end of 2008. This is partly based on that being the plain meaning of what he said and partly on the fact that the same memo said that most of the work will be completed in just three weeks. Whichever meaning Mr. Quinn had intended the calendar year has passed, the school year has passed and it has now been more than one year and there is still no roof.

That the roof is being built at some other location and will eventually be flown to the site and dropped on top by helicopter doesn't explain why, a year or after the fire, the roof has still not been built or placed on top of the tower. In fact, the exact opposite is the case. If the plan was to build the roof at another location why would that work not be done in parallel to the work on the base of the tower. Shouldn't the roof have been completed and ready to be placed on top of the tower on the day the work on the rest of the tower was complete. And how hard is it to frame and build a roof?

We might also wonder why, if the superintendent really intends to use a helicopter two deliver a prefabricated roof the job site and then lower it down on top of the tower, this is being done when school will be in session? Is there not some danger that something will go wrong and someone will be injured? If this is already to go then do it now not when the kids come back.

Readers may recall that on September 3rd, 2008, New Rochelle High School opened except for Room 307 which took much of the damage from the fire and water damage from the efforts by the New Rochelle Fire Department to put out the fire. Two weeks after the fire, Assistant Superintendent John Quinn said in his memo that "all interior painting, carpeting and reconstruction, including cleaning of duct work, installation replacement, electrical and fire alarm testing will be complete by the first day of school".

The memo continued:

Room 307 will be gutted but will not be reconstructed at this time. We are using this incident as an opportunity to evaluate the best use of this former auditorium. For example, we may put in another floor and make two classrooms or make the space into seven or eight offices. Both scenarios would create space elsewhere in the building which also might be better utilized. We can also put Room 307 back the way it was if we determine that is the best alternative.

The memo also has Quinn noting that a "formal evaluation of the entire lightning rod system will be part of this project [rebuilding the tower]."

Really? You mean after the North Tower and South Tower were both destroyed by violent lightening strikes now you want to check about how the towers are grounded?

Never explained was why the metal framework in the South Tower was not properly grounded in the first place. It's not like a lightning strike was so unimaginable considering that on the very day of the 2008 lightning strike repair work was still ongoing over at the North Tower which had been struck by lightning just the year before. Talk of the Town has been asking District officials for the past year to explain why the South Tower was not fully inspected to see that it was properly grounded following the strike on the North Tower. The district has repeatedly declined to answer any questions on this subject.

In the week after the 2008 fire, Schools Superintendent Richard Organisciak blithely told The Sound Shore Report that there were "absolutely no concerns students and parents should worry about". Elsewhere in the same article he told Greg Maker that the "lightning strike literally went straight down the tower damaging rooms 307, 207 and 107 in the South Tower."

Apparently it never occurred to Organisciak that parents with kids in the high school and those who work in the building might just be a little concerned to hear this being that if the lightening strike had occurred on a different day -- say like a a day when school was in session -- that many students would have been in those classrooms and likely killed or seriously injured. In fact, the school year began three weeks later, on September 3rd, 2008.

No one on the school board seemed particularly concerned about the fact that a rather obvious danger to students and staff had manifest itself, that this danger had existed for many years, that the strike on the North Tower should have been more than sufficient cause to investigate the South Tower and yet nothing had been done. Had students or staff been injured or killed, rest assured a compelling case for negligence would have been made against the school district.

In stark contrast to the seriousness of the event, the discussion at the next board meeting was mostly light-hearted banter about sympathy calls Organisciak had received from other education bureaucrats around the state and jokes about getting the insurance company to pony up to to repair the building. In September, the school board and administration were too busy giving themselves awards (along with city officials and city workers) to take time to address the rather obvious negligence which caused the fire in the first place. For those who missed it, Chuck Strome, Mayor Bramson, and City School District Clerk Liz Saraiva were given awards along with members of the New Rochelle Fire Department and the New Rochelle High School maintenance and security staffs. Everyone clapped and cheered for fixing a problem they had precipitated through their own carelessness while doing nothing to investigate the failures would made the fire possible, hold those responsible accountable and rectify and procedural deficiencies.

While it was wonderful these folks found time to give themselves awards for their "bravery" in interrupting their dinner to take a phone call or happening to be Mayor on the day of the fire, those celebrations look a little premature in light of the repeated delays in fixing the building. They do, however, serve to gloss over any need to hold people accountable for failing in the rather obvious task of properly ground a tower with a metal framework atop one of the tallest structures in the North End of New Rochelle, a structure which has now repeatedly been struck by lightening, a structure which, once upon a time, burned to the ground, a structure which, on a typical school day holds over 3,000 students along with hundreds of staff.

Can we at least get some assurance that the same geniuses who were responsible for checking the safety of these tower structures in the past are not the same geniuses checking them now?