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A roof collapse at James Rickards Middle shocked everyone on campus Friday, but it was foreshadowed more than 40 years ago.
The collapse happened in the media center, or library, which was under construction. It was reminiscent of a breach long ago at Apollo Middle in Hollywood.
On April 25, 1979, the roof of the media center there collapsed after a major rainstorm. Even more alarming was that the school design was identical to Rickards Middle and three other schools, all built in 1968 using blueprints from the same architects, Clinton Gamble and William Gilroy.
District officials were so fearful that the same failure would happen at other schools that they closed Apollo, Rickards, Plantation Middle, Lauderhill Middle and Lauderdale Lakes Middle for the 1979-’80 school year to make repairs. Students were sent to other schools that year. After a review concluded a faulty design caused the problems at Apollo, the district sued the architects in 1980. It’s unclear what the outcome was.
The collapse at Rickards was different. It happened on a clear day while the media center was under construction, factors that weren’t in play at Apollo. Rickards also suffered roof damage during Hurricane Wilma in 2005.
The school district plans to investigate the cause of the Rickards collapse.
“Internal and external teams will be conducting investigations regarding the cause of the collapse,” Kathy Koch, the district’s chief communications officer, said in an email Sunday. “We do not have names at this time, but are expecting to receive additional information on Monday.”
The names of investigators had been released as of 6 p.m. Monday.
The campus is now closed, with students learning through remote education. It’s unclear whether it will reopen this school year.
The roof collapsed shortly before 10 a.m. Friday in the media center. No one was seriously injured from falling debris, although about 10 people were transported to the hospital, complaining of headaches and issues related to asthma and anxiety.
The roof was installed by Atlas-Apex Roofers, which have been assigned most of the roofing work in the district. Officials from the company could not be reached despite attempts by phone and email Friday and Monday.
In addition to an official investigation, the district’s Facilities Task Force, a watchdog group, is also reviewing what went wrong. Chairwoman Nathalie Lynch-Walsh said her initial research has found that the roof was installed a year ago. One factor may be a circular item on the media center ceiling that resembles a giant light fixture.
“There’s a hanging decorative structure in the media center that may have contributed to the collapse of the building,” she said. “That building has a long history of issues.”
Teachers have been complaining about poor conditions of Rickards, including mold and mildew, for years. In recent weeks, they’ve heard rumbling noises and unusual smells around the media center, said Anna Fusco, president of the Broward Teachers Union.
The district has insisted students and teachers remained safe through the roof collapse, In an email to parents and employees on Friday, Superintendent Robert Runcie said no one was in the media center at the time and everyone was “safely evacuated.”
But Fusco said Runcie and other district administrators have downplayed the severity of what was a horrifying incident. While construction workers were on break and no one was in the media center at the time, students and teachers were in classrooms just a few feet away, Fusco said. Debris blocked one teacher’s door, and some students climbed onto a sturdy part of the roof to wait for fire rescue, she said.
“They’re making this out like it’s no big deal,” Fusco said. “There were people trapped in classrooms. Hallways were buckled. Kids and staff were running for their lives.”
Science teacher Yulanda Ellis said her room is near the media center and started shaking. She said it felt like an earthquake and some feared it was a terrorist attack. She ended up going to the hospital for medical treatment.
“Nothing fell on me, but I had a major panic attack,” she said. “I started feeling dizzy and couldn’t breathe. They gave me oxygen because of an asthma attack.”
The roof collapse is the latest and one of the most serious setbacks in the district’s efforts to make good on an $800 million bond referendum, passed by voters in 2014, to renovate schools. Only about 20 out of 238 projects are complete, and the district has shown no signs that the pace is picking up.
The district’s construction program is being reviewed by a statewide grand jury that has been meeting for two years. A final report is expected to come out in the next few weeks.