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Fiery crash devastates school

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Kids evacuated after van rips through Montessori and bursts into flames

By Carol A. Clark

What began as a routine Thursday at Quemazon Montessori School came to an abrupt halt when an out-of-control van crashed into the building and burst into flames.

The approximately 40 students attending the school just happened to be at recess when the van tore through the building’s front wall.

Three employees were inside the school at the time including a teenager who was in the kitchen area where the van struck.

No injuries were reported and the students and 19 staff members were evacuated on Atomic City Transit buses to the Pueblo Complex on Diamond Drive. Parents were reunited with their children at that location.

Los Alamos police are investigating the crash that occurred about 3:30 p.m. when Dorota Listwan, 42, of Los Alamos driving a 1996 Dodge Caravan, left the roadway, struck a gas meter and crashed into the school at 4600 Esperanza. The crash sheered a gas line, which ignited causing the minivan to burst into flames and catch the school building on fire.

The driver of the van and her 9- and 14-year-old sons were uninjured.

Quemazon Montessori School owner Tammy Tucker was notified of the fire and flew in Thursday night from California.

“We’re very happy and very grateful no one got hurt. We’re very grateful to the fire department and the police and the county,” she said. “The quick response and calm, cool strength, courage and wisdom of our staff was on the mark and the county evacuation was flawless.”

Tucker intends to rebuild as soon as possible, she said during an interview this morning. She initially built the 5,000 square foot building in 2001. Her adjacent building used for infants and toddlers was untouched by the fire.

“Right now we’re securing the building. The county inspector and utilities have already been out and I have a contractor ready to go,” she said. “We won’t know how long it’s going to take to rebuild until we have an engineer access the damage. In the meantime we’ve had several offers in town to help but we have to work with the county and Child, Youth and Families. We’re setting up a Web site to communicate developments with our parents.”

Tucker indicated her Web site should be up within three days.

The Los Alamos Fire Department was called at 3:37 p.m. and the first crew arrived on scene at 3:43 p.m., said Assistant Fire Chief/Fire Marshal Michael Thompson at the scene.

About 25 percent of the 5,000 square foot school sustained fire damage estimated roughly at $250,000, Thompson said.

“The gas leak complicated the situation and took about 30-45 minutes to get a handle on it and about another hour before the fire was actually extinguished,” Thompson said. “Because the van was on top of the gas leak we had to let it burn to an extent so as not to let gas vapor just run into the air.”

Thompson added that the damage was minimized by the cooperative efforts between the police taking care of the students and traffic, the utilities department handling the gas issue and the firefighters knocking the building fire down so quickly.

Two other concurrent events around town added to the drama, he said. There was a two-vehicle collision on the main hill road at Anderson Overlook as well as a call on 11th Street.

“You can see how this snowballs really quickly and all resources become diminished. But that’s what we train for and that’s what we work to achieve,” Thompson said.   

The crash remains under investigation and the van driver has not been ticketed as of yet, Lt. Scott Mills said this morning.