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Flood turns Valentine Dance into a washout

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Last Thursday’s Cloquet Middle School Valentine Dance began directly after classes dismissed, at 3:30 p.m. At exactly 3:40 p.m., the building’s fire alarm went off and all of the students had to be evacuated.

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That brought the much-anticipated event to a screeching halt and led to what could likely be thousands of dollars’ worth of damage.

Principal Tom Brenner said the dance was just one facet of the school’s popular Fun Afternoon event, which features not only music but an open gym, pool and computer lab. Students were scattered throughout the school when the alarm began to sound.

Student Council President Franny Slater, who helped organize the dance, said she’d just arrived at the event when the alarm sounded.

“We were all told to exit the building, and then we stood outside for a couple of minutes before being sent to Queen of Peace,” said Slater.

Slater said she wasn’t certain just what was going on at the time, but she overheard one of the aides talking about a water leak.

It turned out that one of the pipes in the school’s sprinkler line had burst, triggering the alarm.

“We’re guessing it froze, and as it began to warm up it burst,” Brenner conjectured.

Water from the sprinkler system immediately began gushing down the stairs to the school’s basement.

“Gravity feeds to that spot,” said Brenner, “so that’s where it went.”

Though janitors could have shut the school's water supply off at that point. However, because it involved the school’s sprinkler system they were not allowed to do so until authorized by the fire department. And though the Cloquet Area Fire Department was there within four or five minutes, Brenner said 15 or 20 minutes were required until fire personnel could work their way through the school, survey the situation and authorize the shutoff. By then, extensive water damage had been done, including damage to flooring, carpeting and ceiling tiles.

“Fortunately, we were able to clean it up in the gym in time to prevent damage to the floors there,” said Brenner, adding that the school is still working with the insurance adjuster to determine a final estimate of damage to the school’s interior.

The students who were evacuated to the adjacent Queen of Peace School gym and cafeteria were later allowed back into the middle school only long enough to pick up their belongings and be released to parents. After that, Brenner said, no one was allowed in the building until the faulty pipe and sprinkler system were repaired. He said workmen were on the scene within half an hour and repairs were made in time to hold classes the following morning.

“I can’t say we won’t see any more of that type of thing before the winter is out,” said Brenner, “especially when you see the incredible buildup of snow on the roof.”

The incident was only the latest catastrophe to strike the middle school. Two steam pipe breaks occurred in recent weeks, one of them happening during the nighttime hours and causing extensive damages to one classroom and significant damage to another. Students from those two classes are now making do in what little extra room the school has available.

“We’re sharing space as best we can,” said Brenner.