Sources: Gas Smell Reported Before Explosion at School

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Administrators had recently received several complaints from Santa Ana Valley High School staff about a strong smell of gas in a building where an explosion took place Tuesday morning, according to two sources close to the situation.

The fiery explosion in a boiler room adjacent to the boys’ locker room ripped open the building’s roof. Four students were hospitalized for headaches or ringing in their ears, according to news reports. The blast at about 7:30 a.m. also sent a door flying about 75 feet, authorities told the Los Angeles Times.

A spokeswoman for the district said there had been no complaints about a gas smell coming from the building.

As officials investigated whether the explosion was caused by a gas line or water heater, sources told Voice of OC Tuesday that administrators at the school and Santa Ana Unified School District have been warned about a gas stench in the building, including the locker room.

“They were aware of that building,” said an employee, who requested anonymity. “There have been many complaints about it.”

Another employee, who also requested anonymity, said “the administration was warned multiple times” and complaints from school staff had been taking place for at least several months, probably longer.

District spokeswoman Deidra Powell refuted that account Tuesday afternoon, saying the district had received “zero” complaints about gas smells related to the building. “That was not the case,” said Powell. “That’s something you take very seriously.

“If you warn somebody about it, you do something about it,” she said, “because with something like this, everybody is in danger. … There weren’t any complaints that we were aware of.”

The school district declined to make any of the boiler room’s maintenance records or work orders available for review on Tuesday.

Voice of OC first asked Powell to inspect the documents around 1:30 p.m., but district officials had not provided any by their main office’s close of business four hours later.

The California Public Records Act states that upon a request for disclosable public records, the agency “shall make the records promptly available.”

Asked about the delay in providing the records, Powell said the district has more important issues to focus on.

“That’s not even a priority for us right now,” she said. “Our focus is on the students and the staff. We’re not interested in that piece.”

The school district is overseeing an investigation into what caused the explosion. Powell said Tuesday afternoon that she did not know when the gas line was last repaired.

She added that the hospitalized students were released Tuesday and that the area around the explosion remains shut down as mechanical engineers evaluate the structure.

“Right now our focus is that our students have a normal two days until the end of the school year,” said Powell.

While it’s still unclear what contributed to the explosion, deferred maintenance spending has been an issue at school districts throughout the state.

Santa Ana Unified’s deferred maintenance budget has dropped from $7.1 million to $2 million over the past five years.

You can reach Nick Gerda at ngerda@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda. Contact Thy Vo directly at thyanhvo@gmail.com.

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