tampabay.com

Odor forces school evacuation

By CHANDRA BROADWATER and TOM MARSHALL
Published January 27, 2007


SPRING HILL - A noxious odor sent 36 Hernando County students to area hospitals, after rescue and hazardous-materials crews rushed to Challenger K-8 School of Science and Mathematics on Friday afternoon.

But firefighters using air-testing equipment were unable to find the cause of the mysterious odor - which some likened to the scent of ammonia - that caused the school on Elgin Boulevard to be evacuated just before 1:30 p.m.

By 3:30 p.m., the school reopened and all of those waiting outside calmly filed back in.

"No chemicals or any type of suspicious materials were found in the school," said Donna Black, spokeswoman for the Hernando County Sheriff's Office. "The only thing we could confirm from one of the students is that there was a broken bottle of hand sanitizer."

But principal Sue Stoops said investigators at the scene had ruled out the sanitizer as the source of the fumes, and said police were looking at the possibility that a student intentionally broke a capsule containing ammonia or another substance.

"There was no ammonia leak at the school," Stoops added, seeking to rebut televised reports of a more serious chemical release.

Black said the children taken to the hospital were in stable condition and seemed to be doing fine.

The odor first began wafting through the middle school wing where assistant principal Cynthia Timmons caught a whiff. One student described the scent as being similar to a strong permanent marker.

Stoops said that rather than try to figure out what it was, school officials decided to get all the students and staff out of the building. Challenger enrolls about 1,450 students from kindergarten through eighth grade.

Crews scoured classrooms and garbage cans trying to pinpoint where the scent originated. Black said the smell was strong enough to cause some students in the area of rooms 507 and 508 to vomit.

Others said they felt queasy. Those who reported symptoms were taken to Oak Hill and Spring Hill Regional hospitals, with the bulk of kids going to Brooksville Regional.

Worried parents rushed to that hospital, where 13 students had been admitted by 3:30 p.m., according to spokeswoman Cheryl Love. The school notified parents of all 36 children who ended up at a hospital.

At least four ambulances brought students to a side entrance, where a yellow decontamination tent had been erected, and hospital workers in white coverall suits waited to usher them inside.

Other workers could be seen sealing school backpacks and other personal items in large plastic bags.

Several parents who tried to meet their children there were intercepted by nurses and escorted to the emergency room.

"They said it was nothing serious," said Sam Torna, who had driven to the hospital to pick up his little brother Louis, a seventh-grader.

Outside the emergency room, a red sign had been erected: "Attention: If you feel you have been contaminated, do not enter the emergency room. Wait here for assistance."

Parent Dawn Eberts said she'd been called by Stoops, who said her seventh-grade daughter Mara and other students had breathed in fumes "and felt sick."

She said they'd likely been brought to the hospital just as a precaution, holding up her crossed fingers as she went inside.

"There was a smell in the air and kids have headaches and stomachaches," said parent Heidi Johnson, who was waiting for her seventh-grade daughter. "They're just here to check them out."

Shortly after the evacuation, other nervous parents began pulling their cars over in front of the school along Elgin Boulevard. The sight of flashing lights and fire trucks and rescue vehicles - some from Pasco County - crowding the parking lot alarmed many.

Police blocked both vehicle entrances to the school, and did not allow anyone to walk near the building.

"I was coming back home from a meeting in Tampa and saw all of this," said Lisa Tanner, a parent of two boys who attend the school. She stood on the sidewalk in front of the school with her mother, Gale Stafford.

"No one can tell me anything," she said. "I tried calling the school but no one was answering the phones. There has been no information or any discussion. I just want to know that my kids are okay."

Other parents bombarded Stoops with questions as she stood on the sidewalk with them, a walkie-talkie in hand.

Not far from the group, Terry Babor leaned on her green minivan. At first, the mother of three daughters who attend the school said she felt the same panic.

"But once I realized what was going on I calmed down," Babor said. "All that matters is that everyone is safe."

Chandra Broadwater can be reached at cbroadwater@sptimes.com or 352 848-1432. Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.