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Sinkhole yards from school cancels Love Chapel classes

By Keeli Parkey
Staff Writer
[email protected]
The discovery of a sinkhole at Love Chapel Elementary on Saturday morning has led school officials to close the school for the remainder of this week. Officials plan to announce plans for the school’s 250 students and 30 staff early Tuesday, Aug. 21.
Around 9 a.m. on Saturday, an individual who lives near the school found the sinkhole while walking around the property and contacted authorities, Director of Schools Denise Brown said.
“It was quite smaller than it is now,” Brown said around noon on Saturday. “It’s expanded in the last 3-4 hours quite quickly.”
During a press conference on Monday afternoon, Brown said the Unicoi County Highway Department, under the direction of Road Superintendent Terry Haynes, used dump trucks to transport large boulders to the site and began filling the sinkhole Saturday afternoon.
“We put 100 tons of boulders and rocks into the hole,” Brown said. “We measured at that point and it was 122 feet deep with approximately 25 feet of water in the bottom of it.”
Crews continued to work, with assistance from the Carter County Highway Department, until after midnight to fill the sinkhole. Haynes told The Erwin Record on Monday that 61 truckloads were needed to fill the sinkhole.
“They filled the hole within four feet,” Brown said during the press conference. “That was the recommendation from the engineers because they wanted to watch for settlement and those types of things.”
Brown said that the sinkhole is “stable at that depth.”
On Monday, school officials were awaiting the arrival of representatives of the system’s insurance company. Brown said the system’s insurance does cover sinkholes.
“The holdup for us is waiting for our insurance company to arrive,” Brown told reporters. “They have told us not to allow anyone on school property or in the school building until adjusters arrive and are able to reassess the situation.”
According to Brown, a relocation plan for the students and staff at Love Chapel has been developed, but she did not release specific information about those plans during Monday’s press conference. The details, Brown said, will be released today (Tuesday, Aug. 21).
“We have a relocation plan already developed and we’ll release that in its totality first thing in the morning,” Brown said Monday. “There will be no school at Love Chapel Elementary for the rest of this week.”
School officials have taken steps to keep the students together during the relocation, according to Brown.
“It’s a major process as we start undertaking that, because we’re going to have to move other teachers in some other rooms,” she also said. “Our hopes are to keep those classes together and have them in place by Monday so we can continue their education. That’s our short-term plan for relocation.
“We also have a long-range plan already developed and ready to implement.”
When asked about specific details of the relocation plans, Brown said: “We’ve looked at all schools as an option. The reason we don’t want to release that information, it all depends a lot on our insurance company. They will not allow us to remove content [from the building] so we are going to have to get a professional mover. I don’t want to give information to parents or students that I don’t know is factual at this point … Hopefully, when I meet with them later this afternoon or tonight [Monday], I will have the information and I will do a full press release.”
Brown said she has “been in conversation” with the insurance company many times since the sinkhole was discovered Saturday morning.
“I’ve told them, you’re really tying the school board’s and my hands because they’re not allowing us to move any of the contents until they get here and do their evaluation of the building,” she also said. “We need to be able to start doing things to be able to move forward with the relocation of our students.”
Brown also told reporters on Monday that she and other school officials have been inside the building, assessed the damage and have determined what items will need to be removed as part of the relocation plan.
“The only damage that we have is on the corner of one wing with some cracking in the ceiling tile. We can tell movement in the floor tile, there are some cracks there and some cracks up the wall. The ceiling tile down the hall of that wing looks like it has been moved,” Brown said. “Again, until an official person who knows what they’re looking at … that’s what I’m observing. There’s been some movement and it seems to be stable, but again I wouldn’t allow anyone in there.”
In December, a sinkhole occurred on private property approximately 300 feet from the one which appeared on the grounds of Love Chapel on Saturday. Brown said on Monday that two engineers were brought to the school grounds after that sinkhole appeared to assess the safety of the school property.
“We had two different engineering companies come in once the sinkhole had happened across the school property. Our insurance first of all had to approve that. I got in contact with them immediately,” Brown said. “Of course, we didn’t allow the students on the playground for approximately two-and-a-half months. They brought in two different engineering companies to do additional soil boring tests. They did some seismograph testing to check the area. At that point they told us to put a fence up and that it was safe.”
When asked if and how the newest sinkhole was related to the first, Brown said that the engineer who came to assess the sinkhole over the weekend had not given her any information regarding a connection between the two.
“We had an engineer on site Saturday for approximately 3-4 hours with me. He assessed, took pictures, assessed the inside of the building, those types of things, but I have not had a report or a conversation with him since that time,” she also said. “That would probably be released to our insurance company first. As soon as I know that information, I will be glad to make it public.”
Renea Jones-Rogers, the chairperson of the Unicoi County Board of Education, told The Erwin Record on Monday that she has received telephone calls from parents.
“The main concern is safety and if this building is ever going to be safe to go back into. Of course, it will be if we go back into it. We wouldn’t go back into it otherwise,” Jones-Rogers said. “Then, of course, the other concern has been how long is it going to take before the kids can go to school.
“All that stuff is still up in the air, but I can assure you that Mrs. Brown and the leadership team have been working diligently to make sure they can get the students back in school as soon as possible.”
Also during Monday’s press conference, Brown thanked all the departments that have provided assistance since Saturday morning.
“There have been so many people that were here to help us,” she said.
A meeting for parents of students at Love Chapel Elementary will be held on Thursday. The time and place of this meeting will be announced on Tuesday or Wednesday.
“The reason is Thursday gives me time to meet with insurance, gives me time for them to say ‘yes, you can start moving,’ so I can give them exact information … I want them to have the exact facts we have at the time,” Brown told reporters.
Brown planned to meet with the faculty and staff of Love Chapel Tuesday morning.
After Monday’s press conference, Brown said that the school days missed by the students at Love Chapel will be forgiven by the state.
She said the safety of the students remains the top priority.
“At this point, I will not allow students to go back into this building,” Brown said. “I would not let my own child, and if it’s not good enough for my own child, it’s not good enough for other students.”