x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

94% return to class at Greenfield despite chemical scare

Parents of children who attend a school near the site of a chemical warehouse fire said they were reluctant to send their children back, despite official assurances.

Angela Hollington, the principal of Greenfield Community School, centre, speaks with parents after an information session in Dubai last week.
Angela Hollington, the principal of Greenfield Community School, centre, speaks with parents after an information session in Dubai last week.

DUBAI // Some parents of children at Greenfield Community School kept their children at home yesterday, despite official assurances that a chemical fire smouldering nearby was not a hazard.

The school reopened yesterday after Dubai Civil Defence, which had ordered its doors shut last week as a precaution, declared it safe.

The school had a 94 per cent turnout yesterday, said Angela Hollington, the school's principal.

"We wouldn't reopen if there was any danger," she said.

The assurances were not enough for Alison, a mother of three at the school, who said she would wait another day before sending her children back.

"I kept my children home because I heard from others that there was smoke at the site this morning," she said. "I didn't want to send my children since the fire has not been completely extinguished. I'd prefer to wait since the chemicals that are still smoking are still a mystery."

"I visited the site in the morning and saw there was some smoke," said Bassam, another parent who did not send his children to school yesterday. "There was some sand being put on the site. I am still not convinced it is a safe environment."

Some parents took their children to school just to evaluate the situation, then brought the youngsters back home.

"I wanted to see for myself just to be careful, so I took my son instead of sending him by the bus," said Cecile, a parent with one child in the school. "I got a strong smell, my son started to have really red eyes," she said, and she too experienced some discomfort.

"I didn't want to wait there with my child so I brought him back home. I later heard that they put something on the site to cool the heat and it was not dangerous."

Another parent worried that it may have been "too quick" for her child to start classes.

"On Saturday, there were flames coming up again," the parent said.

She did not rule out keeping her children at home if the fire reignited.

The school was evacuated on October 12, a day after four warehouses of Reda Industrial Materials in the Dubai Investments Park (DIP) were gutted. After the school reopened for a couple of days last week, the Civil Defence again ordered its closure.

At an information session last Thursday, upset parents refused to allow their children back in school unless they were convinced that there were no poisonous gases in the air. The school is about 2.5 kilometres from the plant.

Dubai Civil Defence again said yesterday that the area was safe.

Brig Ahmad Al Sayegh, the assistant general manager of Dubai Civil Defence, said people from his agency had visited the school to give assurances to both parents and children.

He said the cause of the fire is under investigation by the Dubai Police forensic science department.

Civil Defence has given its written consent for classes to begin.

Reda, the owner of the warehouses, has denied that toxic gases remained from the fire, and said it has started using sand to douse the smoke.

"They allowed us to finally put sand because of lot of concerns from parents," said Karim Smadi, Reda's regional manager.

"We are doing everything we can and have people on the site at all times. We want to start clean up as soon as we get clearance from Dubai Municipality," he said.

He declined to comment on the extent of the losses or the cause of the fire.

School authorities commissioned a private laboratory to test the air, water and soil at the school, and they determined that it was safe.

However, the test results also did little to calm some parents' fears.

Kylie, a parent, said her decision to send her daughter to school yesterday "was not without a great deal of anxiety".

She said, "It did not help to see two [Civil Defence] fire units rushing in to the DIP as I drove out shortly after drop off," she said. She was worried that officials had only tested for a few chemicals, even though at least 70 were believed to have burnt in the fire.

Chemicals to make food, detergents, shampoos, paints and pencil coatings were stored at the plant, as well as yeast for bakeries and large quantities of packaged spices for the meat industry.

The school has not yet begun using its swimming pools, nor has it allowed pupils to play outdoors.

"We kept the kids in because the smell of the smoke was distasteful," Ms Hollington said. "It has nothing to do with toxic fumes. We had all our air conditioners cleaned out."

School authorities said that although the smoke and the flames had stopped, they would continue to monitor the situation.


* With additional reporting by Ramola Talwar Badam and Wafa Issa