The quick-moving fire that gutted a West Babylon elementary school last week started when plastic bags stuffed with combustible painting materials ignited after being left in a service hallway by a contractor working in the school's gym, the Babylon Town fire marshal said Thursday.
Gil Hanse, the fire marshal, said boundary lines were being painted on the gym floor last week during the school's winter break. The specialty paint used in the project contained a material that spontaneously combusts under certain circumstances.
"There are some paints and oils that are subject to spontaneous heating when compressed," Hanse said. "They were in the bags, and what that means is that a chemical reaction takes place and generates heat, and the heat was enough and is enough to ignite the material that was in the bag - paper, rags, tape, whatever may be."
Hanse said the bags contained used paint cans as well as shavings from the coating of the gym floor and other painting materials. The three or four bags were stored by the contractor in a service corridor near the janitor's room not traveled by schoolchildren.
Hanse said the bags were scheduled to be removed the morning of Feb. 19. The fire broke out the night of Feb. 18.
It was unclear whether the material was mishandled by the contractor.
Bob Cusumano, president of a West Palm Beach, Fla., firm that analyzes paint for architects and developers, said certain specialty paints can give off enough heat to combust. These paints require special storage and disposal, he said.
West Babylon school district officials declined to comment on the cause of the fire or any liability issues. They also would not identify any contractors working in the building, but Superintendent Anthony Cacciola issued this statement on the school's Web site:
"There has been a great deal of speculation as to the cause of the fire at South Bay Elementary School last week, and the media has already started reporting information from the Town Fire Marshal's office. As the fire has resulted in a complex insurance claim, the district's Board of Education and administration cannot comment on the cause of the fire or any other portion of the Fire Marshal's report, which we have not yet received. Once we receive a copy of the report, and if permitted by the Town Fire Marshal, we will post the report in its entirety on the district Web site.
"Once again, we appreciate the tremendous understanding and support from the community during these trying times."
Hanse said the fire's spread was boosted by three ventilation fans running in the school to disperse the smell from the refinishing project. "Fire spread is contingent upon the movement of air - fire needs air certainly to burn," he said.
Hanse did not identify the contractor. He said a written report on the fire would be ready in "a couple of weeks."
He also said fire officials are still looking into whether any fire codes were violated and whether any citations would be issued.
Section 304.1 of the state fire code states that "combustible waste material creating a fire hazard shall not be allowed to accumulate in buildings or structures or upon premises."
Hanse said the makeup of the wood-frame school, built in the 1950s, also aided the fire's spread. The blaze moved up and entered the roof structure of wood planks and joists, and took off from there, fire officials have said.
There was no one in South Bay Elementary when flames were reported just after 10:30 p.m. on Feb. 18.
With Nomaan Merchant
How it started
Combustible painting materials, used to draw boundary lines on the wooden gym floor, were stored in plastic bags in a service hallway near the janitor's office. The name or brand of the specialty paint was not known
The bags contained empty paint cans and other materials such as tape and also shavings from the material that coats the wood floor.
When packed together, the combustible material heated up and ignited, starting the fire.
The blaze spread throughout the building, aided by the wood-frame makeup of the building built in the 1950s and also by about three ventilator fans that had been set up in the school to ventilate the air during the painting job.
The bags were scheduled to be removed Friday morning. The fire broke out Thursday evening.
Source: Babylon Town Fire
Marshal Gil Hanse