2 still hospitalized after school carbon monoxide leak

Two adults remain hospitalized after a Monday morning gas leak at a southwest Atlanta elementary school sickened dozens of students.

More than 50 people were sent to local hospitals after the carbon monoxide leak began making students and adults ill at Finch Elementary at about 8:30 a.m.

“We received reports of five or six people unconscious,” Atlanta fire Capt. Marian McDaniel told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Crews arriving on the scene did not encounter anyone that was unconscious, but there were several students and teachers feeling ill.”

Forty-three students were taken to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Hughes Spalding, and a spokesperson for Grady Memorial Hospital said 10 adults were brought in for evaluation. No serious injuries were reported, though two adults may be kept overnight for observation at Grady.

Finch Elementary, which has about 500 students, is expected to be open Tuesday.

Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Erroll Davis applauded Finch principal Carol Evans’ swift response in the wake of the incident, but acknowledged the district could improve.

“In all emergency situations, one of the things you find is that the calling trees are not up to date,” he said. “We had a safe place to take the students, but we have to work on a convening place for parents.”

During a school board meeting early Monday afternoon, board member Byron Amos recommended further work to prevent future communication issues.

“We need to continue to work with parents to make sure that all forms of communication are up to date,” Amos said.

Davis said officials are investigating the cause of the carbon monoxide leak.

“We suspect the issue started with the boiler,” Davis said.

Atlanta fire’s McDaniel said high levels of carbon monoxide were found near the school’s furnace. She said the carbon monoxide level, which was measured at 1,700 parts per million, was “one of the highest that Atlanta fire has ever seen.”

“Once we got inside, we started finding carbon monoxide readings way, way higher than we’ve ever experienced before, especially around the heating units and hallways, and the entire building turned out to be saturated,” Atlanta fire Battalion Chief Todd Edwards told the AJC.

“Some of the levels we got were extremely, extremely dangerous, and some of the other ones were just enough to make people ill,” he said. “It really varied on where the students were at the time.”

The school was built in 2004 and opened the following year without carbon monoxide detectors in place.

Glenn Allen, a spokesman for the state Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner Ralph T. Hudgens, said schools are not required by state law to have carbon monoxide detectors.

Larry Hoskins, the deputy superintendent for operations, said the boiler passed a state-certified inspection last year and wasn’t due for another inspection until 2013.

“One of the things we’re going to look at is whether we need to implement the use of carbon monoxide detectors,” Hoskins said.

State inspectors and HVAC technicians are working to confirm the leak is sealed. When they determine that the leak is contained, the state fire marshal will give clearance for the building to be reoccupied, he said.

“We’re anticipating that we’ll regain occupancy tomorrow,” Hoskins said. “The good thing is that we don’t need the boiler to heat the building tomorrow.”

He said there are mobile heating options, if temperatures for Tuesday dip to a point that calls for heating the building.

And if the building isn’t cleared for occupancy, he said the district has other vacant buildings – Hoskins named Archer High School as an example – that can be used until Finch can reopen.

Students that were not hospitalized were transported to Brown Middle School.

Dozens of worried Finch parents waited outside Brown as their children walked into the middle school.

Tymeshia Oliver’s niece and nephew attend Finch Elementary.

“I’m just glad that they’re out safely,” said Oliver, who rushed to the school to check on her relatives. “I want to make sure they’re okay.”

Oliver said the “consequences could have been dire. That could have been lethal. I’m just glad that they caught it where they could evacuate.”

Other parents were critical of the school system’s response to the situation.

Makisha Hamilton said she was completely oblivious that anything was happening with her two children at Finch when she ran into her neighbor, Chevela Jenkins.

“She asked me was I going to the school to get my kids,” Hamilton told the Journal-Constitution. “I called my oldest son’s teacher’s cell phone and learned that the 10-year-old was being taken to Hugh Spalding Hospital.

She rushed to Finch where she saw DeAndre Williams being loaded onto an ambulance.

“His face was filled with tears,” Hamilton said.

She then was directed to Brown Middle School to wait to get her daughter, 5-year-old Ziarre Keys.

“This wasn’t organized at all,” Hamilton said.

Jenkins said she arrived at Brown around 9:30 a.m., but didn’t get notification from an APS robo-call until about an hour later.

“There was no helping the parents at all, and … didn’t know if their child was on the ambulance or where they were at all,” Jenkins said. “That’s not a good feeling to have.”

DeAngela Curate was livid with the performance of the school system.

“They need to have a system in place,” the mother of three said as she walked away from Brown with her children – ages 10, 8, and 5 – in tow. “Why would you bogart the school doors [with police] and increase the panic parents are already feeling?”

She said she wasn’t informed by any school officials about what was happening, and only knew to come to school because of news reports.

“This is ridiculous,” said Curate. “It took me over an hour to get to our kids. I called this school. I called Finch. They should’ve been calling parents immediately. Even if it’s a computerized call, call me and let me know something is going on with my children.”

— Mike Morris and John Spink contributed to this article.

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