When Nina Evangelista walked into the cafeteria at John Muir Elementary School on Tuesday, she saw a familiar scene: a current of bright pink liquid surging over the floor.
“I was told it wasn’t gonna happen again,” said Evangelista, who teaches English learners at the school. “But this time, it was worse.”
Dozens of students were beginning their lunches when fluid spilled out from under the door of a custodial closet. A video from that day, taken by Evangelista, shows students picking up their food and looking down at the floor with intrigue. “Pack up your lunch, pack up your lunches,” an adult’s voice says hurriedly.
The incident marked the third pipe break in the school’s heating and cooling system this school year, according to Seattle Public Schools. The liquid, which the district says is not toxic, is water treated with a “very diluted” rust inhibitor called Chem-Aqua 777 — about 3 gallons per 7,500 to 10,000 gallons of water, according to a statement from the district.
Exposure to Chem-Aqua 777 can be life threatening, according to its manufacturer, but these warnings only apply to the undiluted product, said the statement.
The leaks keep happening because of improper piping in the schools at the time they were built. Instead of more durable metal pipes, plastic pipes were installed at John Muir, which was built at 3301 S. Horton St. in 1971. When two pipes cracked in late November at the school, the district replaced them with metal ones, but were unable to replace the entire system without closing the school down for an extended period, districts officials said.
At the time, the crews said they found no signs of wear or deterioration on another plastic pipe that eventually cracked this week, according to district spokesman Tim Robinson.
The district says it’s been working on fixing the school’s HVAC system for the last three years. The last phase, which will replace the school’s cooling system — the area where the cracked pipes are — is planned for this summer. To prevent another system failure, the district diverted the flow of water around cooling system.
It’s not just John Muir. Similar incidents occurred at a handful of other schools across the district this year, Robinson said. On Thursday afternoon, he was not able to specify the names of the other schools impacted.
The liquid is dyed pink to help maintenance crews distinguish fluid from normal water and identify the pH level, he added.
Jason Hahn, whose son is in second grade at John Muir, said he was frightened when he came across photos that Evangelista posted to Facebook on Tuesday.
While he was relieved to hear that the liquid was not toxic, he said he isn’t satisfied with the way the district responded to parents’ concerns.
“There were literally children were eating lunch and pink liquid was flowing around their feet,” Hahn said. “There was no apology.”
The school also has some heating problems, said Evangelista. The wing of the school where she teaches gets so cold that students have to wear jackets, and teachers bring space heaters from their homes to keep the rooms warm.
Robinson said that all schools are set at 68 degrees, but that there may be “pockets” in buildings that feel cooler.
On Wednesday, Seattle School Board member Eden Mack said she wants to propose a review of the district’s policies around managing incidents like this. Because of a backlog of maintenance issues, “we’re always playing catch-up.”
After the water started to stream into the cafeteria, Evangelista and other teachers ushered the students into classrooms to finish their meals.
Lunch was served in the hallway.