12 hurt in Shaler Elementary when pipe falls

Accident occurred in school's cafeteria

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Shaler Area Elementary fourth-grader Haley Monahan was chatting with friends at her lunch table when she heard a boom and then saw a pipe crashing down, falling squarely on a table where other students were gathered, pinning them underneath.

"We were just sitting there and then we heard a big boom and then pipe fell on one of the lunch tables," she said, calmly recounting the chaos that ensued. Then, she said, "the water started exploding."

In all, the district said eight students and four faculty members were injured when the apparatus, a metal duct air pipe suspended from the ceiling, came crashing down on the crowded cafeteria around 11:30 a.m. Tuesday, when fourth-graders were nearing the end of their lunchtime.

Seven of the students -- four boys and three girls -- were transported to Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, where some were initially listed in serious condition. By Tuesday evening, three were listed in good condition, three were listed in fair and one had been treated and released, hospital spokeswoman Andrea Kunicky said. Two faculty members were taken to UPMC Passavant, but their conditions were not known. The remaining student and two other faculty members were treated at the scene but did not go to the hospital.

Michael Latusek, the district's interim human resources manager, said all of the patients were conscious as they were transported to hospitals.

He and other district officials at the scene said little about the accident, referring comment to superintendent Wesley Shipley, who did not return several messages.

After the accident, the district notified parents through phone calls and told them they had the option to pick their children up early if they wished. Many did, and parents and relatives of students swarmed the building's lobby as a police officer with a loudspeaker directed them as to how to pick up their children. Many students left in tears clutching their parents, describing the frightening scene they witnessed.

The mother of 9-year-old Peyton Cristina, Heather Helfrick, first got news of the accident from a television report. Peyton's uncle went to the school to fetch the girl, who seemed mostly calm.

"It was actually terrifying," Ms. Helfrick said. "My heart fell through my stomach when I saw it on the news."

Haley, 9, and other fourth-graders who were in the cafeteria described a scene of terror as the students fled from the cafeteria, screaming and crying. Some of the students were so shaken with fright that they threw up.

Bailey Ritchey, also 9, said she watched as the pipe fell and pinned students underneath. She said one was knocked out.

"All of a sudden we saw this big tube fall from the ceiling," she said. Then water came pouring out. "Teachers were slipping, and it was scary."

Peyton Cristina, 10, said she watched as the pipe fell and "smashed" the kids and faculty members sitting below.

Two teachers who were struck by the pipe were bloodied, she said.

"Then we all screamed and ran out," she said.

Elsewhere in the building, students reported hearing the crash and screams. A friend told Haley the crash shook the bathroom.

Neither school board members nor district officials could be reached to answer questions about when the pipe was installed or who installed it. The building underwent a renovation about four years ago, but it was unclear if the cafeteria was redone.

But Mr. Latusek said the accident raised safety concerns.

"Anytime you have an issue like that, you have a concern," he said.

Arch Autenreith, a former school board member whose four-year term ended at the end of last year, said the board spared no expense in ensuring the remodeled building was safe and was incredulous that such an accident could occur.

"I can't imagine what the heck happened here," he said.

Ms. Helfrick said she had little concern about the building, which she attended. She believed the incident was "a freak accident" and not an indication of any widespread issue.

"The building is completely intact, always perfect, always clean," she said. "I don't fault the school at all."

education - neigh_north

Moriah Balingit: mbalingit@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2533.


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