Large-Scale Natural Gas Leak at Meramec Stopped by Quick Action

Quick thinking by a teacher and first responders puts a stop to a dangerous elementary school gas leak before anyone is harmed


Photo from Google Maps

Meramec Elementary School, as seen from Forest Park Parkway on Google Maps, was the site of a potentially dangerous natural gas leak on Saturday, Feb. 2, 2019.

At 12:30 pm on Saturday, Feb. 2, the Clayton Fire Department received an emergency call about a smell of natural gas at Meramec Elementary School on S. Central Ave.

According to Ryan Harrell, Clayton Fire Dept. Public Information Officer, the initial response was to send two Clayton fire trucks and the battalion chief to the scene to investigate the situation. About ten minutes later, the Clayton Police Dept. was also called to the scene to assist the fire department with a possible gas leak.

“We did have a strong odor of gas throughout the school, with a higher concentration on the south end near the cafeteria, lower level,” said Harrell.

Det. Lt. Al Thuet of the Clayton Police Dept. also confirmed that officers and firefighters on the scene could smell the gas, at which point they began tests to determine what type of gas it was and contacted Spire, the school’s gas company. Once the situation had been assessed, school leaders were also alerted of the situation.

“I was in the building later that afternoon,” said Meramec Elementary Principal Patrick Fisher. He described how the firefighters effectively cleared the gas using “negative pressure ventilation,” a process which involves forcing gas or smoke out one opening while allowing fresh air to enter through open doors in another, often using fans.

The cause of the gas buildup was determined to be a leak from one of the building’s exterior air intake units. What caused the leak is still under investigation by the police department, but the problems were fixed shortly after they were discovered on Saturday, according to Fisher.

“Originally, we all thought it was something in the kitchen and it ended up being something completely different. Ultimately, it was brought under control without any harm to anybody or without any damage to the building. It’s always a good thing when we can do those,” Harrell said.

However, Harrell also indicated the consequences of the leak could have been much more extreme.

“It could have been a very serious problem [. . .] If nobody had been present over the course of the weekend and it was allowed to continue to flow and fill the building with gas, it is possible it could have reached explosive limits. It definitely would have been a health hazard for anybody entering the building. There wouldn’t have been allowed to be school on Monday,” he said.

Fisher also pointed out how the leak happened on a day with temperatures as high as 60°F; had it been colder, the activation of building heaters could have reacted with the gas in a harmful way.

All the potential damage was prevented, however, thanks to the emergency call of a Meramec teacher who was working in the building over the weekend.

“It was good that the staff member was so assertive and thought to call the fire department and get out of there before trying to investigate it herself,” said Harrell.

“Sometimes you want to hesitate, you don’t want to call it if it’s not that serious, but the fact that she erred on the side of caution was definitely beneficial because it allowed for nothing really bad to happen,” Fisher said of the staff member. “Had she not been here and had nobody come in the building and called 911, nobody would have known about it and we could have had quite a bit of gas in the building.”

Luckily, the situation was handled well and classes at Meramec were able to continue as usual on the following Monday.