WEST ORANGE, NJ - While Wednesday morning, Feb. 17, most likely started out like most school days for most West Orange families with children attending the township’s public school system, it was not the cold weather, with temperatures in the low 30’s that made the day unusual; rather, it was the fact that Pleasantdale Elementary and West Orange High School had to be closed for the day because of a power outage.
At around 8 a.m., a statement prepared by Superintendent Jeffrey Rutzky was sent out via the school messenger service to families at the two affected schools. It said, “Dear Parents: Due to a power outage, Pleasantdale school is cancelled today, Wednesday, February 17th. West Orange High School will be closing at 9:30 a.m. Students who ride a bus will be transported home beginning around 9:30 a.m. The closing is due to the boilers not working and the electricity not working in the lunchrooms and certain classrooms.”
In the late afternoon, Spokeswoman for PSE&G Brooke Houston told TAP, “This morning, a primary wire failed on Pleasant Valley Way near Hooper in West Orange affecting approximately 2,800 customers. The incident occurred around 8:30 a.m. and all customers were back at around 9:15 a.m. We do not know the cause of the equipment failure.”
And, contact in the afternoon, with Susan Anderson, the West Orange Township spokesperson, confirmed that there was indeed a “downed electrical wire.”
In the morning, students and parents began taking to social media to discuss the situation, post photos and videos of the fire and downed wire. There was also some confusion expressed online as Pleasant Valley Way was backed up, with traffic that included many buses.
However, there was at least one child who was happy to have an unexpected day off today. Mom Lee Etta Sutton took her son out for pancakes and shared a photo with TAP.
West Orange Mom Sindy Hamilton, whose family resides on Nance Road, told TAP, “My older daughter Kayla Ceasar was on the High School bus and said her bus driver was very good at keeping everyone calm.”
Caesar told her mom that she saw kids jumping out of the buses in front of hers as “they were closer to the flames and had stronger fire fumes.”
She also told her mom “it was an electrical fire on the street that spread to the first bus.”
Caesar added that she was not “too sure if the fire was just so close to the bus,” but said that is what it looked like to her.
Hamilton said she had some concern that some kids were not being picked up on time because “the same buses were being used (for all schools) and they were still dropping high school kids off.”
“I hope the other kids are still not standing at their bus stops, especially if their parents went to work early,” she said in a note to TAP.
At 8:30 a.m., another call was made using the messenger service—this time, it went out to all families in the school district, and advised that some buses were delayed.
One bus affected was the 341 bus that generally picks up students along Buckingham Road, with a drop off scheduled daily at Mt. Pleasant Elementary School. And there were others, which was apparent as parents were seen dropping off children to the school well after the start of school.
These parents were told that the kids would not be considered late, and should go directly to their classrooms with no need to check in at the office.
West Orange Resident Rebecca Swann-Jackson, whose second grade son attends Pleasantdale Elementary and resides on Cecil Lane Place, said her power went off at 7 a.m. She had a direct view of the fire.
“After the power went out, my younger son, 3, told me he heard a loud thump, but I heard nothing,” she said.
“We then looked out the window into my backyard, which faces the downed powerline, (the front faces the lake) and saw that my next door neighbor’s bush was on fire and that there was a downed electric wire laying on it,” she added.
“I immediately called 911, but was definitely not the first to call, as I was told at 7:10 a.m. that firemen were on their way,” she said.
“They seemed to arrive quickly, but by the time I had to leave for work, at 7:45 a.m., PSE&G had not arrived,” she said.
“I had to leave for work before 8, as I was worried I might have trouble getting out if I waited any longer, and I asked my neighbor to watch my second grade son, who could leave for school with my neighbor’s same-age daughter soon after,” said Swann-Johnson, who took her little guy, who attends nursery school in Glen Ridge, with her. “However, school was then cancelled at 8, and I was already well on my way to work, so thankfully, my neighbor was able to watch my older son for me today.”
Jackson described the affected area as being a big fire, with sparks and a flailing wire.
“My kids were excited by the firefighters, and the little one ran around looking for a fire extinguisher and asking if we had more because he wanted to help put out the fire,” she said with a laugh.
At the high school, TAP Student Intern Austin Bartola reported to TAP live from the school.
He said, “At the high school, attendance was sparse throughout the morning as students who arrived at the school went to their first and second block classes. While the school day started at 7:30, buses arrived as late as 8:45 since most students were stuck in slow-moving detours through side streets within the Pleasantdale area. Stuck in stopped traffic, some students simply turned around and returned home.”
“Between the three wings of the high school, lights were flicking or out in both hallways and classrooms, and for a brief period, a total power outage caused a complete blackout as students moved to their second class of the day,” he said.
“The hindrances to the school environment caused by the electrical fire rendered a decision by the Superintendent to announce a 9:30 dismissal,” he added, “downed internet limited access to resources such as teachers' lessons, assignments, and attendance records. The electrical configuration of some bathroom facilities left them unusable and unavailable, and the loss of power to the ID entrance system stifled access to areas in and around the school.”
“Once all of the buses arrived in the school parking lot for pickup around 9:55, students were finally dismissed from their second block classes where they had been held until notification was given,” he said. ”By this time, traffic from earlier in the morning was cleared and buses were able to send students home as normal.”
West Orange High School Principal Hayden Moore commended his staff for a job well done and explained what happened.
He said, “Announcements were made to students noting that the building was safe but compromised (loss of power to various areas, some computers and classroom not working, boiler not working). Students were informed that dismissal would be 9:30 but to sit tight...they were completely safe in the building.”
"Students may have felt confused because it was an off-morning--equipment was not working right, parts of the building were without power, and some buses did not even arrive to the high school until 9:30 due to the traffic on PVW,” he added.
He said, “Students were told to remain in their classrooms until parents had been notified and all buses were on site to take them home.”
"Once all students were accounted for, all parents had been notified and all buses were in place to take students home, actual dismissal time was 10:00 a.m.,” he shared.
“As of 11:30 a.m., all students were out of the building and the boiler was up and running, but not the power,” said Moore.
"Our staff did a great job of ensuring student safety," said Moore.
West Orange Public Schools Spokeswoman Cynthia Cumming said that school messenger notifications went out on the school messenger platform, and via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram from the school district and were posted on the website.
West Orange resident Susan Palmucci, who is a teacher in Newark, was already at work when she learned of the morning issues.
“I feel we need some kind of plan in place, although I know you can’t plan for everything,” she said. “My daughter was at her bus stop for one and a half hours this am, and her pick up time is at 7:39 a.m.”
“I called the transportation department that was being flooded with calls and I also called the BOE to ask what my daughter and the other 14 kids at her bus stop should do—walk up maybe to Washington to be in a safe place and out of the cold?” she said. “A staff member in the superintendent’s office said to call Roosevelt and I said the phones were not working there. She then said just to have the kids wait as the buses were coming.”
“I then called Mrs. Dimeo at Washington with my concerns and she could not have been nicer,” said Palmucci. “She said to have the kids walk up to her school and once there, they would figure out busing.”
“As the kids were walking there, she called Roosevelt and was told to tell the kids to go back to the bus stop,” said Palmucci. “Just as they arrived at Washington, they were disappointed to learn they had to leave and go back to the bus stop.”
“Thank goodness they were a group of seventh and eighth graders, and not seven- and eight-year-old kids, waiting without parents who had already left for work,” she said.
‘We have procedures for fire drills and shelter in place, why can’t there be a plan in place for the kids to walk to the nearest school for safety in case of an emergency?”
“Back at the bus stop—the bus never came,” said Palmucci. “And a mom, a stranger, was nice enough to come to the bus stop and drive six of the kids, including my daughter to school.”
“My daughter got into a stranger’s car today because of what happened,” reitterated Palmucci. “We stayed on the phone for the whole ride and I am certainly grateful to the mom who drove her to school—but still, my daughter had to get into a stranger’s car today to go to school.”
“Today, there were unforeseen circumstance that really rippled,” said Palmucci.
Editor's Note: The first video was created by Matt Guastoni and the second one was filmed by James Wicks II.