A frozen attic water pipe feeding Oak Park and River Forest High School’s sprinkler system burst in the early hours of Dec. 20, flooding the northern one-fifth of the school and causing an estimated $750,000 to $1 million in damages.

Quick responses by Oak Park firefighters and OPRF administrators and staff allowed the school to open Monday morning, when classes were scheduled to resume after winter break. Of the 30 to 40 classrooms affected by the flood, five were not ready on Monday, said Jim Miller, OPRF director of buildings and grounds.

Three art rooms still need repair to floors and cabinets, which may take two months to complete. In the meantime, art students have been relocated, and the school is considering making temporary repairs to one of the rooms to open it to art classes.

A drafting room and the second floor library are expected to be open by the end of the week.

The Oak Park Fire Department was the first on the scene after three 2 1/2-inch cast iron pipe fittings burst from ice formation around 4 a.m. on Dec. 20, Miller said.

Roof repair work had left a 2- to 3-inch gap near the base of the attic while gutters were being replaced. The gutter normally would cover the gap. As a result, cold north winds probably caused non-flowing water in the sprinkler system pipes to freeze, Miller said.

Miller doubted that the roofing company was to blame for the incident, but said that determination would be up to the school’s insurance company, which is expected to pick up the tab for the damages.

Once released, hundreds of gallons of water per minute flowed into the school. The flow set off the school’s fire pump, which automatically signaled the fire department. Because the pipe is buried in a hard-to-reach section of the attic, the sprinkler main spewed water for approximately an hour before firefighters were able to locate the source, then shut off the sprinkler main valve, which is also difficult to access for safety reasons.

Running water ruined ceiling tiles, wallpaper and some carpet, and caused hardwood floors in art classrooms to warp. Some carpets were dried quickly enough to be salvaged. Water damage in the library destroyed some sets of old periodicals and building materials, but no books.

The smell of mold was absent in the building, except in the library, last week.

Mold was the primary concern after the water to the sprinkler system had been shut off, Miller said. A company that recently pitched its environmental services to the school, ACR, got to the scene by 8 a.m. on Monday, Dec. 20, Miller said.

The company brought in dozens of fan dryers; vacuums with sci-fi octopus-like tentacles dug into hardwood floorboards to suck out moisture below the floors’ surfaces; and giant clear plastic air sausages delivered dry, heated air throughout damp sections of the building.

The incident required the school to remove an asbestos panel that had been exposed during the cleanup.

Damage could have been worse if the building were not as old as it is, Miller said. The plaster walls, original to the 1913 building, were not damaged by the water.

“If this was drywall, it would really be a mess,” Miller said.

Timing was also a benefit to the school. The holiday break gave crews two weeks to remove moisture, install new drop ceilings, and make improvements that classrooms needed anyway, Miller said.

“It was lucky it happened when it did. Otherwise we probably would have had to close the school” a week, Miller said.

Contact: dcarter@wjinc.com

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