Was comatose school boiler tech victim of maintenance shortfall?

POLA22C1
Chris Trakimas was gravely injured in a boiler-room explosion in a Mount Airy school.

ED STEIN, Jim Whitehead, and Chris Trakimas had this year's hunting and fishing trips all figured out.

As always, the longtime friends and skilled outdoorsmen would track deer in January and February. Hunt wild turkey in spring. Catch flounder and striped bass over the summer.

Together, they'd clean and skin their bounty, but only Trakimas would whip it into meals they'd savor for hours in a small hunting cabin in Pike County, Pa., where locals have affectionately dubbed the men "the three amigos."

"Chris could've been a chef," says Whitehead, 58, describing Trakimas' culinary output: Succulent venison steaks, perfectly crisped fish, turkey breast so tender it almost melts on the tongue.

"And, God, he makes hush puppies to die for."

For nine weeks, Stein and Whitehead have had to rely on memories alone of those lovely, lazy dinners. On Jan. 15, Trakimas, 61 - employed for 28 years by the School District of Philadelphia as a burner technician and boiler mechanic - was gravely injured in an explosion at F.S. Edmonds School in Mount Airy.

That afternoon, he was relighting the burner of a boiler that had been dormant for 18 months when disaster struck. The investigation is ongoing, but it appears that gas had collected in the boiler's interior and breaching area, and ignited.

But Ed Stein says the boom that shook the block wasn't an explosion.

"It was a burp," says Stein, 56, who works for the School District as a steamfitter heating mechanic. Whitehead represents Stein, Trakimas, and others for SEIU 32BJ District 1201.

"If the boiler had really exploded, it would've leveled the building. People would've died."

No matter what we call it, the force of the blast threw Trakimas across the room, breaking his shoulder, and flames engulfed his body from mid-chest down. If not for building engineer Anthony Kowalski, who raced into the boiler room with a fire extinguisher as staff evacuated 500 students from the building, Trakimas would have perished.

But he has been fighting for his life ever since. He remains in a medically induced coma at Temple University Hospital's burn unit, where he has undergone multiple skin grafts, battled recurring infections, and endured major complications - including kidney failure - as the staff works to stay a step ahead of his catastrophic injuries.

A few weeks ago, says Stein, Trakimas turned a corner in his recovery and was slowly weaned from the drugs that had kept him in a deep sleep. But his vital signs became erratic "from the pain," says Stein, and he was sedated once more. Last week, he developed yet another infection.

"It's back to touch and go," says Stein. "He's not out of the woods yet."

If he survives, he faces a grueling recovery, including surgeries and months - maybe years - of physical therapy.

Trakimas' family - he is married, with three grown children and two grandchildren - declined to comment for this column. They asked Whitehead and Stein to speak on their behalf.

"Chris is an all-around good guy," says Whitehead, who chokes up often when describing his friend. "His whole life is his family. His main outlet is fishing and hunting" - Trakimas is an expert bow-hunter. "The whole time, he talks about his family."

He's also a dry joker, a "no-BS" type, and a technical wizard who once built a computer for Stein. To not have him tinkering around his family's Somerton home, whipping up meals, playing with grandkids Jaden and Anthony - it's unnatural to his loved ones. The blast that blew a 150-pound cast-iron door off that school boiler has also blown a hole into their lives.

Trakimas' wife, Michelle, has left her management job at Target to be at her husband's side; their two daughters, Stephanie and Courtney, frequently accompany her. Their son, Chris Jr., has stepped up to become "the man of the house," says Whitehead, handling finances and negotiating new payment plans with the mortgage and utility companies.

Fortunately, Trakimas has solid medical benefits through the union, and workers' comp is keeping his paychecks coming in. But without his wife's salary, the household money has been tight.

On Saturday, the union held a well-attended beef-and-beer at Firefighters Local 22 Union Hall to benefit the family, raising just over $6,000. And Whitehead has established an online fund-raising account for them, too (www.gofundme.com/yesc57fg).

The attention would floor the unassuming Trakimas.

"Chris hasn't said a word yet," says Whitehead. "We're not sure he knows what's happened to him. But when he comes to, we think he's gonna look around that ICU and say, 'WTF?!' "

Various versions of that same question have been asked since the day Trakimas was hurt. Because the thinking among union officials is that the Edmonds school explosion was a disaster waiting to happen.

The School District has 642 boilers, yet only six burner technicians like Trakimas to service them, down from 14 in the last 10 years. One technician will soon retire, and it's doubtful Trakimas will ever return to the job.

"How can so few people do adequate maintenance on that many boilers?" asks Whitehead, adding that Trakimas never should have been working alone. "Someone should've had his back."

After the explosion, Mayor Kenney ordered a reinspection of all of the district's boilers. The work is being handled by three contractors - Devine Bros., General Asphalt, and PGW - along with district personnel and union reps.

District spokesman Fernando Gallard says the reinspections should be completed by the end of this month. The district and the city will then release a joint public report of the findings. The district is also conducting a review of the accident, as is the Philadelphia fire marshal, who will also release a report.

Ernie Bennett, assistant district leader of District 1201, says the response has been "appropriate." His people have been meeting weekly with the reinspection teams and with the Managing Director's Office.

"This was a tragic accident. We will work to make sure it never happens again," he says. "We are working with the district to come up with a way to complete repairs before the start of next school year's heating season.

"We are glad to see progress made," he adds, "but it should not take a tragedy to fix our schools."

Indeed, a district insider told me that the reinspections have uncovered some "horrors waiting to happen." One school boiler's metalwork was so overheated, it was ready to melt down - within inches of a gas line. A blast caused by such a scenario would flatten the school, taking hundreds of lives with it.

It's unthinkable.

But this is what we've come to in a district where building maintenance has fallen prey to the same draconian budget cuts that close school libraries, and pull counselors, nurses and aides out of circulation. The skilled mechanics and engineers whose most important job is to safely maintain our schools' complicated, aging, and balky heating systems are now expected also to paint, sweep, and clean the enormous buildings they work in.

That's too much work for too few hands.

Bennett said it should not take a tragedy to fix our schools. But the ugly truth? That is exactly what it takes, because we haven't the will to do otherwise.

"It's so sad," says Whitehead, thinking of how badly he and Stein miss their third amigo - his companionship on their mountain trips, his fantastic cooking, his wisecracks.

"Chris was looking forward to retiring next year. It's all he talked about, so he could hunt and fish whenever he wants."

I pray he's soon out of the woods, medically, so that he can get back to the real woods - the rugged hills of Pike County, with pals who have his back.

polaner@phillynews.com

215-854-2217 @RonniePhilly