Gas leak at the Woluwe European School: disaster was narrowly avoided

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The 3200 pupils of the Woluwé St-Lambert European School, located on avenue Oscar Jespers, will be remembering 1 February 2013 for years to come. So will their teachers and the school management for that matter.

On that day, the school had to be evacuated: there was a gas leak. The school was stayed closed for 17 days in all.

A disaster was narrowly avoided. Apparently, it could have been the result of outdated pipes and flaws in the security system.

The school authorities and the parents’ association are now working hand in hand to pinpoint and solve problems linked to this crisis.

On Monday 18 February, the school reopened.

Suddenly the alarm went off

Let us return to the scene of the near-accident with a number of first-hand accounts.

It is the afternoon of Friday 1 February at the Woluwé European School.

The 7th-year secondary students are sitting a BAC examination. The 5th-year and 6th-year pupils are also sitting examinations while the 4th-year is sitting tests.

A number of 6th-year students hoping to enrol with British universities are having to send off their details.

Primary and nursery school pupils are in their classrooms.

Suddenly the alarm goes off. An emergency drill? No it’s the real thing. A smell of gas has been detected in one of the equipment rooms.

The Principal, Pawel Wojtczak, immediately orders the school to be evacuated.

In their haste, many pupils leave behind their satchels, coats, books, exercise books, mobile phones, etc.

Teachers, administrators and members of the Parents’ Association conduct the pupils as fast as possible towards the far end of the recreation ground, the football ground or the bus parking area, ensuring that none are left behind in the school buildings.

The Montgomery police and fire officers are called out at 14.25 and arrive promptly at the scene to take charge of the evacuation. The police then cordon off the area.

Many pupils call their parents on their mobile phones and have to be reminded by the adults present that the use of mobile phones in such circumstances is strictly forbidden because of the risk of explosion.

It is raining. Those without a coat, particularly those who were in the gymnasium, are soon soaked through.

Having cut off the gas and electricity, the firemen realise that the school has no gas pipe layout plans.

Officials from the Public Buildings Authority (i.e. the Belgian Government), which owns the premises, arrive and begin to argue with the school administrators as to who is responsible for the non-existence of such plans.

They are followed by technicians from the Sibelga company, who attempt to locate the origin of the leak or leaks. It is not known whether the piping has given way in one or more places.

Without telephones or computers – the power has been cut off, the on-site school server is inaccessible and there is no back-up system – the administrators issue an initial notification on the Parents’ Association website, announcing that the school will remain closed on Monday 4 February.

The Mayor (Bourgmestre) of Woluwé-St-Lambert, Oliver Maingain, then appears on the scene, announcing that, pending further instructions, no-one will be authorised to enter the school premises apart from those working to resolve the problem.

In the meantime, a large number of secondary school pupils have been gathered together in the school gymnasium. The school buses are now due.

The primary school pupils, who were moved to the bus parking area, then catch their buses home.

A number of emergency meetings are held between the school authorities, the emergency services and the local authorities. Numerous still need to be solved….

The parents arrive

Some parents have been contacted by their children and others over the grapevine. 2400 families are concerned.

Fortunately no-one has suffered intoxication or injury and no explosion has occurred.

Anxious parents begin to converge on the school causing major traffic jams.

17 days out of school

On Tuesday 5 February the parents’ representatives discuss with the school authorities what measures must be taken in order to catch up on lost time, organise homework, recover property left at school, resolve evacuation problems etc.

The mayor flatly refuses to allow parents to recover their children’s property before the school reopens and the premises are sealed off to prevent loss or theft.

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Aim of the European Schools

Educated side by side, untroubled from infancy by divisive prejudices, acquainted with all that is great and good in the different cultures, it will be borne in upon them as they mature that they belong together. Without ceasing to look to their own lands with love and pride, they will become in mind Europeans, schooled and ready to complete and consolidate the work of their fathers before them, to bring into being a united and thriving Europe.

Marcel Decombis, Head of European School, Luxembourg between 1953 and 1960