Junior high and high school students were sent home Friday following a carbon monoxide issue at Urbana Junior High/High School.
Multiple emergency agencies responded to the building at 500 Washington Ave. at 9:54 a.m. Friday for a reported gas leak, Urbana Fire Chief Mark Keller said.
Staff and students were experiencing effects of carbon monoxide poisoning, which include watery eyes and headaches. Students were quickly evacuated outside, into freezing temperatures, and moved to the high school gymnasium/auditorium, which showed no carbon monoxide levels, Urbana City Schools Superintendent Charles Thiel said.
EMS personnel evaluated 44 patients – students and staff – while at the scene, and 12 individuals were transported to hospitals by emergency officials, Keller said. More went to hospitals on their own, he added.
Patients were transported to Mercy Memorial Hospital in Urbana or Springfield Regional Medical Center in Springfield, and Keller said hospital staff also called for medical helicopters to transport patients to other facilities, such as Ohio State University in Columbus or Miami Valley Hospital in Dayton.
Students not transported were released to parents.
Community Mercy Health Partners Spokesman Dave Lamb said Mercy Memorial Hospital had 34 patients from the incident – a mix of students and others – as of 5:20 p.m. Friday. Thirty of those patients were treated and released, and four of them were transferred to other hospitals. He did not have condition reports on those four.
EMS personnel and Columbia Gas officials monitored the entire building to discover the source, a boiler in the “Castle” area of the structure. Once the source was discovered, the boiler was shut down and the building was vented. Students were allowed to retrieve their belongings once it was safe to enter, and students were dismissed around 11:30 a.m. Friday, Thiel said.
Administrators had noticed a problem with the boilers Friday morning before school started; staff thought the heating system was malfunctioning.
“(The boilers) had been checked at 5 a.m. They were firing. We didn’t have any indicators of any issues,” Thiel said. “But after school started, staff noticed it was cooler, and something was preventing the boilers from firing.”
Thiel said staff believed one of the dampers was jammed shut, causing carbon monoxide buildup.
“We think the problem is resolved. We ventilated the building and shut it back up to see if there’s gas in the building,” Thiel said. “We didn’t want to fire the boilers until we were certain we got all the kids off site.”
Thiel said he believed some students were transported to hospitals, but he did not have specific numbers. At least one staff member was taken to the hospital for monitoring.
Thiel said the problem was not related to the ongoing construction of the new high school, as it is in a different part of the building from the construction.
EMS personnel from St. Paris, Mechanicsburg, Urbana and Macochee Joint Ambulance District in West Liberty responded to the school, Keller said.
Thiel said he appreciated the fire department and other emergency responders for their quick action. He also expressed thanks to students and staff.
“The students, though confused about what was going on … behaved very well, and the staff did a really great job. It’s a real challenge to do a dismissal like this. It’s been going as smoothly as it could,” he said Friday.
Urbana did plan to hold its boys basketball game against Tecumseh Friday night at the high school. The game had been in doubt while officials checked the carbon monoxide levels, Thiel said. Staff and emergency personnel will be on scene just in case, though Thiel said there was little danger. The game would be in the gym, which had no carbon monoxide levels recorded earlier.
Staff and contractors will be on hand throughout the weekend measuring carbon monoxide levels to ensure the issue is addressed, Thiel said. Assuming those tests come back negative for carbon monoxide, school should resume Tuesday – Monday is a teacher work day.
Casey S. Elliott may be reached at 937-652-1331 ext. 1772 or on Twitter @UDCElliott.