Independence, KY School Explosion, Oct 1980
BLASTS ROCK SCHOOL.
Independence, Ky. (AP) -- A dozen art students were painting Halloween goblins on Simon Kenton High School windows when a fiery blast from the boiler room next door slammed them across the room, killing one teen-ager.
"We heard a sudden hissing, like steam, coming from the wall ... five seconds, and the whole wall blew up," said art teacher LINDA WHITTENBURG.
A half-hour later, after some 1,000 students had fled the school, a second explosion rocked the building, triggering a fire and gutting three floors in the north wing.
The cause of the noontime blast, which injured 33 people, had not yet been determined, Kentucky fire investigators said.
The tremor from the second explosion rattled homes a half-mile from the school, residents said.
John Engle, the school district's business manager, was in front of the school when the first blast occurred. "It's an absolute miracle there weren't 200 kids killed," he said.
"There were immediate flames in the first three windows on the bottom floor," he said. "My first thought was that I could see 30 kids in the art class being incinerated immediately."
The boiler room is in a north wing added to the original 45-year-old building, about 10 years ago, Engle said.
Many students were in the cafeteria, at the other side of the building, when the blast occurred, and that may have towered the number of casualties.
"We were in the lunchroom and heard the fire alarm go off," senior Donna Ridner, 17, said.
"Everybody thought it was a fake, just another fire drill. Then teachers came in and yelled, 'Get out. Get out.' This is a real one.'"
"Nobody panicked. Someone said it was just a fire in the chemistry lab, but that wasn't it. When we were outside, they told us to go next door to the elementary school and wait there."
"Then we heard the second explosion. It lifted us off the ground a couple of inches."
Mrs. Whittenburg praised her students, who were closest to the blast. "The kids were great. They grabbed me off the floor. We had barely time to get out. The flames rolled right toward us."
The body of the dead youth, ROBERT WILLIAMS, 16, was found in the art room.
Insurance inspectors had checked the boiler and gas furnace two weeks ago, said Bert Bennett, superintendent of Kenton County schools. Two school employees also had inspected the furnace Monday, when it was used the first time this fall, said Principal Robert Abell.
Damage to the rest of the building had not yet been assessed, and schools officials did not yet know whether classes could be held Monday.
A Cincinnati Gas & Electric Co. crew had trouble finding a shut-off gas valve to the school, and utility crews needed a backhoe to dig six feet to the valve.
"We are continuing the investigation, but as far as the wat, why and the how, we won't know that for days or even weeks," he said.
The Capital Annapolis Maryland 1980-10-10