“You didn’t (expletive) up once. You did it twice”

NEW MILFORD — Tension filled the room at the more than two-hour Municipal Building Committee meeting about Tuesday’s roof fire at New Milford High School.

“You didn’t (mess) up once. You did it twice,” shouted New Milford Mayor Pete Bass on Thursday evening addressing representatives from United Roofing & Sheet Metal, Inc. in Brookfield — the contractors performing the roof work Tuesday. United Roofing could not be reached for comment Friday. The fire marshal hasn’t determined the cause of the fire.

Bass was referring to the December fire at the school, which damaged a roughly 10-foot by 20-foot section of the roof that closed the school the next day.

At Thursday’s meeting, Bass said United Roofing workers were responsible for a pipe falling on the ground during the work, and a ladder hitting one of town’s Community Emergency Response Team trucks.

Many questions remain regarding the Tuesday’s fire, which caused six firefighters to suffer from smoke inhalation.

Its exact cause, the costs involved, the project’s new expected completion date, and if the fire could have been prevented by not using hot torches on the roof was discussed at the meeting.

The work involves using a propane torch during on the roof. The torch was responsible for the December fire, Bass said.

The building committee spoke about an alternative to the hot torch system called an adhesive the contractors were told to use on the roof.

“The hot process was used in December because it was cold weather and the kids were basically coming out of school, and they wanted to continue with the project,” Bass told Hearst Connecticut Media. “Once (the workers) ended up causing that initial fire, that’s when the building committee said not to do it again, and we were reassured by the owner that they were not going to do it.”

When using the hot torch method, Bass said it’s important to make sure the “proper procedures” are in place and workers have been properly trained.

The committee’s assistant chairman, Charles Bogie, asked the contractors, if moving forward, only use the adhesive process on the construction.

“We still have a roof that has to be fixed. We’ve got a hole in it that’s going to take some time to fix but we still have more to go. From here, do we need to do hot work anymore? Can we move forward with the cold applied (procedure)?” he said. “If what we’re saying is no more hot work, then I shouldn’t see a torch on the job. I shouldn’t see propane on the job. I shouldn’t see anything having to do with fire on that job. From here on out. Can we do that?”

The contractors agreed.

Building committee members and town officials asked United Roofing workers additional questions pertaining to their qualifications, training and experience for the work they were performing.

United Roofing said one of the workers on the portion of the roof where the fire occurred has 22 years of experience, while the other has 12 years.

The workers were then asked if they’re familiar with the National Fire Safety Protection Codes. None spoke.

To that response, Bass grew angrier.

“Crickets, I hear,” he said.

He questioned whether he should give United Roofing another chance to work on the project.

“To me, if it takes a little extra time, where we do it right with somebody else, I really don’t care. My biggest concern is to those kids. You must remember these kids have been through a freakin’ heck of a lot. They’ve been through remote, hybrid. And now they may be going back to a whole different way of learning this year — because of mistakes. So my concern is that we should all talk about this as a committee.”

United Roofing’s insurance paid for the December fire, and will do so again, for Tuesday’s fire.

Bass was also angry over the close call for students and staff in the building.

When the fire broke out, about 30 students were loaded onto buses. Staff in the building evacuated.

Had the fire occurred one day later — on Wednesday, about 375 students would have been in the building in summer programs.

Roof construction, school in the fall

The town had been discussing a new roof since 2018, when it was reported the 50-year-old roof was leaking and regularly losing shingles.

Work on the $4.76 million roof project began last year. The work is two-thirds completed.

As to when school will start, Superintendent Alisha DiCorpo said it’s premature for her to consider moving up the fall date.

“All of the beginning of school decisions will be based on the outcomes from the assessment from the restoration company with regard to how many classrooms may be accessible to us as well as the overall ability to occupy portions of the building or occupy the building at all,” she said.

The first day of school for students is scheduled for Aug. 25, and the teacher workday is set for Aug. 22.

The school is looking into portable classrooms as an option should it still be uninhabitable.

About 1,300 students will be in the high school for the 2022-23 school year.

DiCorpo said she has asked the state commissioner of education about a remote option.

“Remote instruction of course would be the very last resort and only utilized if approved and there is no other option,” she said. “We do have to ensure that we are meeting the 180 days required by the state of Connecticut.”

The New Milford Board of Education will meet at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at Schaghticoke Middle School to give an update on the roof damage.

Town Council will discuss the roof project at 7 p.m. Monday.

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