Students overcome by carbon monoxide at Atlanta school

Staff writers Katie Leslie, John Spink, Mike Morris and Jeffry Scott contributed to this article.

What is carbon monoxide?

Carbon Monoxide, or CO, is an odorless and colorless gas that can cause serious illness or death when inhaled. CO is produced when fuel is burned and can be found in combustion fumes, such as in cars, gas engines, stoves, gas ranges and heating systems. The gas builds up in enclosed spaces.

Why is it dangerous?

When inhaled, CO enters the bloodstream and displaces oxygen supplied to vital organs. The gas can cause illness, brain injury and death. Roughly 170 people die annually from carbon monoxide exposure, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

What are the symptoms of CO poisoning?

Those exposed to CO may experience such symptoms as headaches, dizziness, fatigue, vomiting, trouble breathing, confusion, stomach upset, fainting, confusion and in extreme cases, death. Some CO survivors report feeling immobilized, unable to move to a safer area.

What to do when you suspect exposure:

Seek fresh air immediately and seek medical attention.

How to prevent exposure:

Have household appliances checked by a professional annually to ensure proper functioning. Install a carbon monoxide detector, found at most hardware stores, in your home.

Source: Children’s Hospital Boston and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

One by one, the youngsters started raising their hands, saying they didn’t feel well. One student in the elementary school had a headache, another felt dizzy and another nauseous. And another and another and another.

Within an hour Monday, Finch Elementary School in southwest Atlanta was in a state of panic. Principal Carol Evans had so many kids complaining that at about 8:30 a.m., she called for emergency personnel, who began evacuating the school of its 500 students and cordoning off the parking lot. A few passed out and were removed on stretchers.

As fire trucks and ambulances pulled in, the parking lot was turned into a triage center, with paramedics evaluating which of the sick needed to go to the hospital. More than 40 were transported to medical centers, including 10 adults at the school.

By 5 p.m., virtually all had been treated and released in what officials say was a mass case of carbon monoxide poisoning. Fire officials who tested the air in the school focused on the heating system, which had passed an inspection only a year before. It’s unclear what went wrong with the system, but officials say the colorless, odorless gas apparently had built up all weekend.

Finch had no carbon monoxide detectors, as they are not required in Georgia schools or state buildings.

“Some of the levels we got were extremely high,” said Atlanta Fire Battalion Chief Todd Edwards. Carbon monoxide “can kill you in a minute.”

The highest readings reached 1,700 parts per million. Health officials say people should limit their exposure to 50 parts per million over an eight-hour period. Georgia school officials said they could not recall a similar incident in the past 30 years.

Finch will be closed on Tuesday. Students are to report to Kennedy Elementary, according to APS spokesman Stephen Alford.

Monday morning, amid the sirens and flashing lights of ambulances and fire engines, some children started crying. Teachers and administrators went from child to child trying to calm them.

Fourth-grader Kevares Mitchell said he saw one child lose consciousness. Rhyanna Tyson, a 9-year-old, said she could see students shivering and others stumbling around in the grass before dropping.

Parents of Finch students complained that they were left in a lurch, scrambling for their children and for answers. Many said they were disappointed with the school’s communication with parents, that messages were hard to understand and sent out late.

Atlanta Public schools Superintendent Erroll Davis acknowledged shortcomings in the school response. Atlanta school officials sent out the first of their tweets at 9:02 a.m., announcing the evacuation, and about 20 minutes later started placing robo-calls to parents whose children had been taken to the hospital.

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

Many parents found out through breaking news reports, neighbors, friends and the sounds of news helicopters above the school. Mothers, fathers and grandparents clad in pajamas, head-wraps and work uniforms rushed to find their children.

Doris Harper said she saw on the news that there was an evacuation at her children’s elementary school.

“I put whatever I had on and ran out the front door,” she said.

Patricia Parks, the mother of a third-grader and kindergarten student at Finch, said she got a call from someone asking what was going on at the school.

“Nothing,” she said.

“Yes, there is. You better get up there,” the person said.

Later, she was still worried.

“I’ve seen my oldest, but I haven’t seen my baby,” she said. “He’s got asthma real bad.”

Finch school officials transported the students to Brown Middle School. Dozens of parents waited outside Brown awaiting news of their children.

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

“She asked me was I going to the school to get my kids,” Hamilton said. She 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.

Several parents said their children complained last week of headaches, bloody noses and throwing up.

State fire and insurance officials said the incident raises the question of whether carbon monoxide detectors should be required in schools, nursing homes and other commercial buildings. Currently, no such law exists.

Edwards, of the fire department, said he sees around 10 to 30 incidents of carbon monoxide poisonings each winter but they are usually in small homes. He said it’s been several years since they’ve seen a death.

It’s unlikely that the students will suffer any permanent injury from the exposure, said Dr. Sharon Bergquist, a doctor of internal medicine and primary care at Emory University School of Medicine.