Union: School safety, maintenance pleas were ignored in boiler explosion

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Ernie Bennett, director of 32BJ SEIU 1201 public school workers union, speaks outside the School District of Philadelphia building on North Broad Street during a rally there to protest safety conditions in response to the recent boiler room explosion at Franklin S. Edmonds School.

For years, workers and union leaders say, they warned Philadelphia School District officials: Keep cutting safety corners and deferring critical building repairs, and someone will get hurt - or worse.

That's just what happened this week when a boiler at F.S. Edmonds Elementary School exploded, surrounding school mechanic Christopher Trakimas in flames and leaving him fighting for his life.

"Once people are being lit on fire at work in the School District, something has to change," said Ernie Bennett, an official with 32BJ SEIU, the union that represents Trakimas and other blue-collar workers.

Bennett and dozens of others marched to district headquarters Friday to demand answers. After meetings with a top district executive, Mayor Kenney, and a representative from Gov. Wolf's office, they had a few: Each of the 600-plus boilers in schools citywide will be reinspected, and union leaders will get to help rank which projects get priority in a soon-to-be-completed assessment of district buildings.

"We need to take on these problems directly, not act as if the School District is separate and our children are separate from city government," Kenney said.

But, union officials said, it is unacceptable that it took Trakimas' critical injury - and an unthinkable risk to the more than 500 students and staff at Edmonds, on Thouron Avenue near Gorgas Lane in Stenton - to force the district's hand. The school system, they said, had ample notice that terrible things could happen.

"If they had a suggestion box, it would have been overflowing with 32BJ members' suggestions on what we could do to make schools better and safer," said Gabe Morgan, the union's state director.

Trakimas knew it was a dangerous job: bringing back on line a school boiler that had been shut down for more than a year. The work was so tricky that in the past, two employees would have been present to ensure safety.

But as budgets shrunk, union officials said, the district decided just one worker could handle the task, involving gas and water lines and the use of fire irons. It fell to Trakimas on Wednesday afternoon.

The details are not clear, but around 1:30 p.m., there was a thunderous explosion. The building engineer, working nearby, reacted quickly, grabbing a fire extinguisher to douse the flames that were burning Trakimas from the torso down, union officials said.

Trakimas remained Friday in a medically-induced coma at Temple University Hospital's burn unit.

Erik Fleming, a staffer with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, happened to be getting out of his car to visit Edmonds when the explosion occurred.

"I've never heard anything like that," Fleming said. "The ground shook, and smoke poured out of the smokestack."

Edmonds staff evacuated the students in minutes. Many did not have time to grab their coats, but they quickly accounted for each child and shepherded them to New Media Charter School, across the street.

"Amazingly, nobody panicked," Fleming said.

He was shaken by what he saw, but also angry. As a teachers' union staffer, Fleming has filed hundreds of grievances about building health and safety issues, he said.

He and leaders from 32BJ say many work orders for building issues go unfilled.

Little is known about the circumstances surrounding the Edmonds explosion, said Fernando Gallard, district spokesman. Both the Fire Department and an independent engineer were investigating.

The boiler passed inspection in 2015. School boilers are now examined every other year, an industry standard.

Edmonds students are off until Tuesday while repairs are made. An emergency boiler will heat the school when students and staff return.

Gallard said that the district has spent $83 million in 10 years on new boilers for the district's aging schools, and that he was not aware of any specific safety issues at Edmonds prior to the explosion.

"We don't ignore safety issues," he said. "We want our schools to be as safe as possible."

District leaders' prayers are with Trakimas and his family, Gallard said.

Bennett, the union official, described Trakimas as "one of our top guys, with a whole lot of knowledge. If he's in harm's way, then everybody else is."

Jim Whitehead, a school steamfitter now working for the union, said he is a close friend of Trakimas, whom he described as a family man with a wife, children and grandchildren.

Whitehead's eyes grew moist when he described Trakimas. He said he loves the outdoors, hunting and fishing.

"Great guy - he'd do anything for you," Whitehead said. "And that's what he was doing - trying to get the boiler online for the kids."

kgraham@phillynews.com

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www.philly.com/schoolfiles

Staff writer Claudia Vargas contributed to this article.