Ceiling collapse injures Gomez teacher
Published: September 24, 2013
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ST. THOMAS - A 100-foot long slab of ceiling collapsed at Joseph Gomez Elementary School as classes were starting Monday morning, pinning down a fourth-grade teacher for 30 minutes in front of her students.
The slab fell from an overhanging roof on the outside second-story walkway of one of the school's classroom buildings.
The teacher, Alison Ford, had been preparing some of her students to leave for a reading class when she heard a noise outside about 8:15 a.m., according to Acting Education Commissioner Donna Frett-Gregory.
When Ford went to check what the sound was, the slab fell on top of both her legs and one arm and blocked the students in her classroom.
Ford was the only one who was injured by the collapse.
"Get it off, Ms. Ford. Get it off, Ms. Ford," her students had been pleading to her, according to the account that Ford told Frett-Gregory in the hospital on Monday.
Ford was trapped under the section of ceiling until about 9 a.m., when emergency responders were able to free her and transport her to Roy L. Schneider Hospital by ambulance.
Ford was admitted to the Emergency Room with several bone fractures, despite early reports from the V.I. Territorial Emergency Agency that she suffered only minor injuries.
Ford injured both legs, one more severely than the other, Frett-Gregory said, and would not be able to use the more injured leg for quite a while.
Ford has worked at the school since 2000, according to the school's principal, Jamon Liburd.
While classes in the same building heard the slam of the section as it hit the floor, and the cries of Ford after she was hurt - other classes were completely unaware of what was going on.
"One teacher found out when a parent showed up at her classroom," said Maria Benjamin, who was picking up her niece after hearing about the incident through word-of-mouth.
V.I. Education Department officials did not immediately notify the teachers or parents because the incident was isolated and under control, according to St. Thomas-Water Island Administrator Barbara Petersen.
However, Education officials did notify residents of the collapse via alerts through the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency and also through the Governor's Office, which contacted local radio stations.
Some of the information disseminated was not completely accurate, as reports from VITEMA stated that part of a classroom had collapsed, giving parents the impression that an interior portion of the classroom had fallen through.
Parents arrived at the school irate, and emotions escalated as they were forced to wait outside the school, in the street and on the sidewalks, before school officials allowed them on the campus.
"The children should already be back with their parents. That should be the first priority," said Jason Williams, who was waiting to pick up his son and daughter.
At about 9 a.m., parents rushed the campus and were met by school and Education officials, all of whom were trying to organize the parents in a single space.
Police, fire and VITEMA officials also were on the scene.
"In a situation like this, while we know that the parents want to see their kids, our first priority is to keep their kids safe," said Education spokeswoman Ananta Pancham.
While school officials were trying to keep track of the students, many of the parents were shuffling their children away without checking them out as they had been instructed.
Other parents were yelling, frantically searching for their children.
"There were parents taking other people's children, which is a no-no. And many people just grabbed the children and went," Frett-Gregory said. "Anybody could have taken anyone's child from the campus because it was in such disorder."
While about 90 percent of students went home, school was not dismissed, and some of the students stayed.
Students in the fourth grade had the opportunity to speak with counselors about the incident because they were either in Ford's class, or were nearby the commotion.
The Education Department will close down the building, also called the "new" building, where the incident occurred.
About 125 students attend class in the building, which is dated back more than 50 years.
"We do have engineers on staff at the Department of Education. They rely on operations people at each of the schools," said Petersen, who formerly attended the school and said that about 700 students currently are enrolled there.
However, Education officials did not know when the last time was that anyone had checked the section of ceiling that failed Monday.
All schools in the territory undergo inspections on an annual basis, and schools are under constant maintenance, Petersen said.
The Education Department expects to entirely remove the overhanging roof of the building within the week.
Liburd said because the department was going to do an assessment of the "new" building, he had requested that the department conduct an assessment of all the school's facilities.
While the assessment primarily will be the Education Department's responsibility, V.I. Public Works Department also will assist.
Public Works Director of Roads and Equipment Lionel Olive said that no one yet knew the exact cause of the failed section, but it looked like the overhang was built with too heavy of materials, namely concrete.
However, the inside ceiling should be fine, he said, as it is made with completely different materials.
Students are expected to returning to the building in about a week, Frett-Gregory said.
"You have to trust us," she said to parents on Monday at an evening emergency meeting.
- Contact Jenny Kane at 714-9102 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.