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Hazardous chemicals more than HazMat could handle

Adding to the immediate dangers are hazardous chemicals, creating a situation that not even HazMat could solve. Chemicals left in the school’s science lab had been secured while the building was closed and being used as a storage facility. Sunday’s fire gutted the building, leaving it exposed to the elements and unidentified chemicals, including old ether had to be moved to the old gymnasium to ensure they could be locked up and undisturbed until a Reactive Management Team could come and dispose of these chemicals.

Colonial Beach School Board Chairman, Tim Trivett, a long time volunteer firefighter, was on the scene of the early morning fire, Sunday, Jan. 5, that gutted the already condemned two-story building that once served as the town’s only school, a high school and more recently a middle school.

Trivett outlined the events of the morning at a special school board meeting held at 2:30 p.m., just as fire crews were wrapping up operations at the site of the burn.

Trivett told the audience, at about 3:52 a.m. the pager went off telling first responders there was a structure fire at the elementary school. According to Trivett, Colonial Beach firefighters were the first to make entry into the building. Unfortunately there was a lot of fire and it had made its way up the stairwell in the center of the building.

“Most of you know that building is over 100 years old. I believe it was 1907 when it was built. The only thing it has been used for, for the past two years is storage. We did have a large amount of Xerox papers stored in there on the first floor.” Trivett said adding, “There really was not much we could do; within a very few minutes the fire had gone through the roof.”

Trivett said the firefighters had some water issues. “When you have that many fire apparatus on the scene and you’re pumping a lot of water. There was nothing we could do to save the building.”

A fire boat from Cobb Island docked in the Potomac river and firefighters ran fire hoses from the boat, across Washington Avenue and up the hill to supply extra water to the trucks on scene, supplying dozens of tankers to help battle the blaze.

Fire crews from all over the Northern Neck as well as parts of southern Maryland and crews from Dahlgren and King George came to the aid of Colonial Beach. CBVRS was at the scene all day to assist firefighters with any medical needs that arose. Thankfully no responders were injured during the fighting of the fire.

Trivett explained that firefighters were faced with another hazard after the fire was extinguished.  “We did have an old lab in that building that had never been removed.  In that lab is hazardous chemicals. Some of them are pretty serious.” The old science lab had been left with some old chemicals. One in particular was the chemical ether. Ether is relatively safe but over time, Trivett explained, it becomes highly volatile and even opening the lid can cause an explosion.

Trivett explained that HazMat can not deal with this type of material. A Reactive Management Team is needed to properly dispose of the ether and some of the other chemicals. Only then can the HazMat team come in and deal with the remaining chemicals and other hazardous materials in the building. Temporarily for public safety the chemicals have all been relocated to the gymnasium. This allowed the school board to properly lock up the materials until they can be professionally dealt with.

Fredericksburg HazMat team and the State Emergency Management Services (EMS) responded but neither were equipped to deal with these explosive chemicals. Trivett said EMS will try to contact the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) to see if they can assist with clean up efforts.

Trivett outlined steps that need to be taken first to ensure public safety. Bringing in the RMT then HazMat to remove the dangerous chemicals are top priority as well as fencing the entire campus to keep the public away from the area by request of Westmoreland County Building Inspector Dexter Monroe.

Trivett told the public that some of the chemicals probably dated back to even before he was born and some may not even be able to be identified. “We were very fortunate none of them had exploded during the fire.”
Trivett said, “We’re not going to be able to put kids anywhere on that campus.”

Trivett stated that both the elementary Mod Pod and the primary school buildings could be entered to remove items, but in his opinion it is unsafe to allow students to return.

Linda Farneth

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