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Burst pipe closes St. Mary's for rest of week

Firefighters dealing with frozen sprinkler systems

STERLING – This week’s weather-related vacation just got a little longer for the students at St. Mary’s School.

Like other schools throughout the Sauk Valley, St. Mary’s was closed Monday and Tuesday because of the extreme cold.

Then about noon Tuesday, a pipe to the sprinkler system broke in the attic, leaving water everywhere, St. Mary’s Principal Rebecca Schmitt said.

“My secretary was working and heard the fire alarm go off,” Schmitt said. “Then she saw water coming down the stairwell.”

Schmitt said she didn’t think the attic was heated.

The Rock Falls and Sterling fire departments were on the scene. Schmitt says the school is grateful that they were there for quite a while to deal with the initial mess.

Some of the rooms were left untouched by the flooding, but unfortunately, the hardest-hit area included the school’s two computer rooms. The insurance adjuster will be at the school today to assess the damage.

The secretary was the only person in the school at the time.

“Thank God the kids weren’t there when it happened,” Schmitt said. “The water was coming down in torrents. It all happened so quickly, it would have frightened them.”

The elementary school at 6 W. Sixth St. will definitely be closed today, Thursday and Friday, Schmitt said. She hopes classes will be back in session next week.

“The restoration crew has been working on it today [Tuesday],” she said, “and we hope to have everyone back on Monday.”

The school will continue to update parents and staff via emails and text alerts. A decision had not yet been made as to whether the days would be made up at Easter break or at the end of the school year.

The sprinkler problem at St. Mary’s was similar to the situation at Civic Plaza II in Rock Falls, Sterling Fire Department Capt. Mike Wheeler said. The cold weather has made sprinkler monitoring a time-consuming endeavor for the local fire departments. Wheeler expects the situation to get worse before it gets better.

“When these systems are frozen, the water comes when it starts to thaw,” Wheeler said. “This is the fourth one in the last week.”

The fire department keeps a fire watch list for occupied buildings with frozen sprinkler systems. In addition to Civic Plaza II and St. Mary’s, Sterling’s Kmart Plaza and Coventry Village are on the list. The Sterling Fire Department received a call about 5 p.m. Tuesday to check on the sprinkler system at Kmart Plaza.

Unfortunately, not much can be done to prevent sprinkler problems in such extreme cold, Wheeler said.

“It’s the way these buildings are designed,” he said. “Air leaks, and you just can’t wrap all of that.”

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