Police say it is unlikely that vandals were trying to torch Northeast High School early Monday when they broke into a chemistry lab and fired up six Bunsen burners, one of them leaking gas throughout the building.
But they did succeed in snarling traffic and stretching already thin nerves on Veterans Day as school officials initiated a massive lockdown.
More than 2,000 arriving students and staff were diverted to nearby shopping plazas after the 6 a.m. scare.
"We shut down the campus," said principal Michael Miller, who exited the freeway on his way to work Monday to find a caravan of police cruisers and fire trucks lining the way to the high school.
A maintenance worker opening up the two-story science building before dawn was the first to detect the leaking gas and lit burners inside the chemistry lab. Police found no signs of forced entry.
"As soon as I smelled it, I didn't want to do anything; not even turn on a light," said technician George Bortscheller, who pulled the fire alarm. "The building was so full of gas I couldn't even breathe right."
While an open flame was streaming from five Bunsen burners, the problem was that the main valve on at least one other burner was open, spewing noxious fumes.
School administrators redirected incoming buses to Town Plaza at 52nd Avenue N and 19th Street N. Students and faculty driving onto campus were rerouted to Rutland Plaza at 62nd Avenue N and 10th Street N.
"It was very calm," said assistant principal Trish O'Neil. "Teachers were circulating, students knew what was going on. Cell phones were available to students who wanted to get in touch with their parents."
More then half of Northeast High's students opted to go home for the day rather than return when the school opened about 8:15 a.m., Miller said. He noted they will be counted as absent but administrators will work with them at the end of the semester.
Some teenagers, talking about the scare during a sparsely populated lunch period Monday, said the incident left them shaken.
"I was scared, I was crying," said freshman Tiffany Ensminger, whose bus was detoured. "I thought we had a bomb threat. I left school too, but my mom told me I had to come back."
Others, such as freshman Natasha Franklin, took it in stride.
"It's really been kind of a fun day because you know, it's not normal," she said. "We're not really doing anything."
Although TECO workers measuring gas levels deemed the building safe, administrators cordoned it off with police tape as it aired out.
About 20 displaced teachers who held science classes in the auditorium and the cafeteria Monday will return to their rooms today, said Miller.
A letter went home to parents Monday, and two neighboring schools, John M. Sexton Elementary and Meadowlawn Middle School, were notified of the lockdown as part of a "block initiative."
Meanwhile, authorities have broadened their investigation to include a ransacked portable classroom behind the high school that appeared to have been broken into with a butter knife, said St. Petersburg police Sgt. Dede Carron.
Two more portables at John M. Sexton Elementary were also ransacked but there were no signs of forced entry, she said. Authorities had not yet determined whether anything was stolen.
"We're looking at it like this certainly could be related," Carron said.
Police had no suspects late Monday, but Carron said "it almost sounds like you're dealing with kids." If so, they could face both criminal charges and school disciplinary action in the commercial burglaries. Anyone with information is asked to contact the department's burglary division at (727) 893-7254.