Custodian praised as hero after mercury spill: "Just doing my job"

Published: Mar. 22, 2017 at 5:36 PM CDT
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"Just doing my job."

That's the first reaction from a long-time Green Bay schools custodian responsible for spotting mercury that spilled at Lincoln Elementary School.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources released photos Monday from the cleanup more than four months ago.

The DNR credited the janitor, Shelley Ives, with recognizing the mercury, containing it, and preventing it from endangering other children.

Ives remembers December 6 like it was yesterday. He says he asked a couple of fifth-grade girls to help him set up chairs for the Christmas concert when he saw a silvery substance in their hands... and on the risers... and on the gym floor.

"I noticed them playing with something, and they had it in their hands and playing with it, and I looked down and I thought, wow, I know what that is, it's mercury, and it's like... that's not good."

He immediately knew what the shiny, silvery substance was because in 1999 he was a custodian at Green Bay East High School when students put mercury in squirt bottles and sprayed it on each other. He knew from that experience mercury vapors are dangerous to breathe in.

While Ives says he was panicking a little on the inside, he didn't let it show and very calmly told the girls to put the mercury back in the vial and in a locker so they would all know where it was. He didn't want any other kids exposed to it.

"I told myself to relax, and once I knew it, I had a plan in my head that I need to get it away from other children and stop the spreading of the mercury."

Ives says he went straight to the principal and said, "We've got a problem."

"First it was a shock and your stomach kind of does a little drop. Are you sure that's what it is? And he was sure that's what it was," Principal Angela Hager said.

"I'm like, oh, mercury, we need to make sure the ventilation system is turned off. Already done, he said. So any of the things that needed to be done had already been taken care of," Hager went on.

Hazmat crews, the DNR, and eventually the Environmental Protection Agency arrived at the school to find and clean up mercury.

No one was injured.

The DNR told us if it weren't for Ives's quick thinking the entire ordeal could have been much worse.

Hager says it was Ives's calm, matter-of-fact demeanor that put students and staff at ease that day.

"This could have been a whole lot worse had it not been for his quick thinking and his ability to recognize what it was and take action," said the principal.

But Ives says he's called the hallways of Green Bay schools his home for 28 years, and that makes the kids here his family.

"'Mr. Ives, I need something. Mr. Ives, I need something.' Whenever they need something, I'm there for them," Ives said. "They consider me a hero, but I'm just doing my job."