DA, Russ Johnson, Accused of Interfering with Life Safety Improvements At LHS
Safety Issues On Radar 2 Years
Inspector, contractor sounded alarm, but officials didn't heed it.
State fire inspectors said they have endured a two-year ordeal beset with delays, misplaced priorities and political pressure in their attempt to make Loudon High School safe.
“It has been a nightmare just one fight after another,” said Ron Jones, a state fire marshal’s inspector who testified to the grand jury last week. “They kept trying to circumvent us by going through Nashville.”
The grand jury is looking into charges that delays in addressing life safety issues at the school may have amounted to criminal negligence.
District Attorney General Russell Johnson, however, has asked the TBI to determine whether he should remove himself from the investigation. Concerns have been raised that Johnson interfered with fire safety work when he was a state representative.
School officials said Thursday that the school passed a fire inspection with the exception of the gym, where the alarm didn’t work. Two firefighters will be present for a pep rally today, but the gym will generally be off limits.
“The work could have been done in less than a year,” said Randall Delbridge, plan reviewer for the state fire inspector’s office, who also testified before the grand jury.
Architect David Wright of Vaughn & Melton was hired in mid-2005 to prepare plans for upgrading the school’s alarm system, installing sprinklers and compartmentalizing the school to control the spread of fires.
Wright said he told the grand jury he was so concerned when he first viewed safety conditions at the school that he called in fire inspectors to assess the situation.
“I felt the school was not safe at that time,” Wright said. “I felt the inspectors had to see the building themselves to appreciate the nature of the problems.”
Fire marshals said they were repeatedly frustrated by school administrators who refused to give safety issues priority over an unapproved project to install a new heating and cooling system, according to Joe Webb, a resident activist who also testified before the grand jury.
“When fire marshals arrived to inspect the building they found that not only had the work on the fire safety issues not been progressing but that they were working on an HVAC project that had not been certified,” Webb said.
Inspector Ron Jones said he could not understand why every time he visited the school over the next two years the life safety work was not being done but the HVAC work was underway without a fire marshal’s permit.
“I must have shut them down eight times,” Jones said. “I don’t know why they would not work on the safety issues.”
Fire inspectors said they were put under political pressure by then-state Rep. Johnson to provide the approval that would allow the HVAC program to move forward.
They said Johnson placed a call, described as a “legislative contact,” to their office around 3:30 p.m. on June 20, 2006, asking for help in gaining certification for the HVAC project.
The HVAC project was allowed to proceed without proper certification and subsequently interfered with the life safety work, Jones said.
Johnson is now the district attorney charged by the grand jury to investigate whether or not the delays in the program constitute criminal actions.
Johnson confirmed that he contacted Delbridge at the fire marshal’s office in Nashville in June 2006 and participated in a conference call, the purpose of which was to facilitate communication between the fire marshal’s office and Dave Hemelright, maintenance coordinator for the school department.
“There was a communication breakdown,” Johnson said. “We agreed that in future we would put Hemelright in the background.”
Loudon resident Webb said he believes Johnson should recuse himself from the case because of his possible involvement.
“How can we rely on Johnson to investigate himself?” Webb asked.
Johnson said he was aware of the concerns expressed by Webb and has asked TBI to conduct its own investigation into the case.
“We’ll look at the TBI report. If TBI feels that I should recuse myself, I would,” he said.
Assistant District Attorney Lee Ledbetter also will conduct her own investigation and report to the grand jury, Johnson added.
Loudon schools Superintendent Edward Headlee denied any connection between the HVAC program and the delay in working on fire safety issues.
“They were paid for with totally separate funds,” Headlee said. “The HVAC project was contracted to a private firm.”
It is the opinion of the fire inspectors that the high school building is still unsafe and may never be brought fully into compliance without major remodeling.
“If I thought the school was unsafe I wouldn’t have allowed students in the building,” Headlee responded.
Said Jones: “The building is not safe now and I don’t know if it ever will be safe.”