A fire Saturday at the Martin Luther King Jr. School

A fire Saturday at the Martin Luther King Jr. School was estimated to do $2.5 million in damage, officials said. (Photo: Kim Courtney)

The damage resulting from a school construction site fire has roughly doubled in price to $5 million, city officials said Tuesday.

As a May 30 fire at the Martin Luther King Jr. School and Putnam Avenue Upper School building was being put out, Cambridge Fire Department Assistant Chief Gerard E. Mahoney said the fire, smoke and water damage to the building’s third floor and roof and heating and air conditioning equipment there was estimated at about $2 million to $3 million, “and it could be a lot more.” Damage estimates later settled at about $2.5 million.

But during an update to School Committee members at their Tuesday meeting, City Manager Richard C. Rossi said, “we believe from the contractor’s report just after this meeting last week that we are at about $5 million in damages. That is still being updated.”

“It will not surprise me if that number has changed, but it is a significant amount of work,” Rossi said.

While officials have assured that the damages are covered by insurance and shouldn’t add to the $95.5 million cost of construction, comments to committee members explained further how that process worked.

The insurer for school contractor Rich-Caulfield has so far been “looking at everything and assessing all of the damage,” said Amy Witts, the city’s purchasing agent. But the city is “right now going over to see what damages the city itself has incurred, as opposed to just the contractor’s damages. And we are preparing a claim to make to the insurance company just to preserve our rights for any of the damages the city may have sustained.”

In addition, the opening date for the campus seems to be in flux, which matters not just for the students who plan to move in from their temporary space in the Kennedy-Longfellow School, but for the students, teachers and administrators who will replace them in the swing space when construction is done at their King Open School and Cambridge Street Upper School – the second of three school construction projects being tackled by the city.

The new goal was to do everything possible to keep that second project on schedule, and then be able to do the third planned project – the Tobin School/Vassal Lane Upper School building – on the original three-years-per-school schedule, Rossi said.

Rossi was initially optimistic that Rich-Caulfield would follow through on a commitment “to having the MLK Jr. School open by September … we have a strong team in place that will get the job done.” But June 9 brought news that despite the efforts of disaster recovery and construction teams – who were to start installation of a new roof this past week – it was clear completion and opening of the campus would be delayed.

On Tuesday, committee head Mayor David Maher was calling delay from the fire “a bump in the road,” and and that new schools would be delivered “not that long after that September date.”

A firmer date was hoped for by the end of June or first week of July, Rossi said. The city manager said he, Superintendent Jeffrey Young and Chief Operating Officer James Maloney were working to decide when and how “to move at whatever point we are ready … We want to do this for the convenience of the school staff, the principals, the teachers, the parents, etc.”

He offered assurances as well that recovery from the fire was being done with care and high quality, with repairs or replacements for anything needing it and industrial hygiene workers coming in to remove all burnt material and ensure the building is free of mold.

“They’re opening up walls and examining all of that. They’re experts in that,” Rossi said, promising a written report would follow addressing air quality at the campus.

“This is a terrible disappointment for us, because we wanted to deliver this school and offer it to the community with pride as the newest and best thing we have to offer,” he said. “I still say that will happen, it’ll just happen some months later than we had expected.”

While the fire appears to have started with highly combustible pretreated roofing materials on a hot, windy day, fire officials have said an investigation into the fire will be long and completed in no certain time frame. Rossi expanded on that Tuesday, telling committee members that “the state fire marshall has still not given us a an official response [on cause] except to say that this was not arson in any way. This might have been some casual error.”

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