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Cummings Elementary School sixth-grader Robby Blount and teacher Brenda Fine examine a hole in the ceiling of a first-grade classroom where heating coils burst and sprayed hot water early Monday morning.

Cummings Elementary School sixth-grader Robby Blount and teacher Brenda Fine examine a hole in the ceiling of a first-grade classroom where heating coils burst and sprayed hot water early Monday morning. (Jennifer H. Svan / S&S)

MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — Third-grade teacher Eric Lee knew something was wrong when Cummings Elementary School, from the outside, looked like a Japanese bathhouse.

Strolling up to the main entrance at 5:40 a.m. Tuesday, Lee, the first staff member to report to school, noticed through the foyer door some glass was “all fogged over, like an onsen.”

Indeed, conditions inside were almost perfect for a warm bath.

Lee found standing water about an inch deep “from the elevator to the library, halfway to the cafeteria, all the way down the hall. I opened the door to the teacher’s work room and steam came pouring out. It was like a sauna. You could not see across the room, there was so much steam in there.”

Cummings now is drying out after heating coils burst earlier this week and spewed hot water from the music room to the library, closing the school for a day. Base civil engineering officials said they believe the copper pipes froze last weekend, then cracked open upon thawing. The first pipe leaked Monday morning in first-grade teacher Lisa Marie Hannon’s classroom, starting with a drip and then a flood of hot water and steam from the ceiling vents.

Soon after, another pipe broke and doused a corner of the library. Then three other first- and second-grade classrooms were hit.

That wasn’t all: Overnight Monday, a heating duct cracked in the teacher/parent work room, spraying water into the hall and the adjacent computer room and creating the swamp Lee found Tuesday morning. Other waterlogged rooms included the literacy lounge and music room.

“The whole ground floor of the school was affected,” said assistant principal Claudia Holtzclaw.

Maj. Monte Harner, operations flight commander, 35th Civil Engineer Squadron, said water- filled copper coils in eight ceiling heating units broke.

Officials have no damage estimate yet, but Harner expects it won’t be much.

“We’re going to have to replace the broken coils, there’s a little bit of water staining; but the carpet, once it dries out, appears fine,” he said.

Holtzclaw said quick-acting staff members and parents willing to lend a hand kept damage to a minimum. Nobody was injured and no students got wet.

“A few books and papers were damaged, but virtually nothing else, because things got moved out and dried off in time,” she said. Teachers and other staff members helped move furniture, retrieved buckets to place under leaks and helped students settle into new areas.

School was closed Tuesday and the computer room, a first-grade classroom and the teacher/parent work room remain off-limits. Fans and dehumidifiers run constantly to dry out drenched carpets. Some ceilings with large holes where pipes burst will have to be repatched. School officials salvaged the grand piano from a very wet music room, and all the computers appear to be working, said Brenda Fine, Cummings community relations liaison.

“I have to hand it to the military guys,” Lee said. “We would not have been able to have school the next day if they weren’t in here running interference and helping us get things cleaned up.”

Harner said the fire department and maintenance workers from civil engineer’s Ninja Zone, with help from CE’s heating, ventilation, air-conditioning and refrigeration shop, all helped with the cleanup.

To prevent more heating coils from breaking, teachers have been advised not to turn on the supplemental heating systems, Harner said.

“They still have heat,” he said; they just can’t further adjust the temperature in individual rooms.

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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