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Dozens sickened after carbon monoxide leak at elementary school

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MONTEZUMA CREEK, San Juan County — Forty-four students and adults from Montezuma Creek Elementary School were treated for possible carbon monoxide poisoning Monday.

"An exhaust pipe coming from one of two water heaters had become disconnected at some time, venting gas into a mechanical room, the kitchen and classrooms," San Juan County administrator Rick Bailey said in a prepared statement.

The carbon monoxide scare and subsequent school evacuation started shortly after school began Monday. Many students were gathered for an assembly in the school's gymnasium, located next to the room where the water heaters operate.

The San Juan County emergency management office reported the 44 people, including a male volunteer EMT, were transported to hospitals in Blanding, Monticello and Cortez, Colo.

A female teacher was taken by medical helicopter to Southwest Memorial Hospital in Cortez, Colo., and later transferred to a Salt Lake City hospital, where she remained overnight, Bailey said.

A third-grade student was also flown to Southwest Memorial Hospital, where she was treated and later released.

A second adult woman who was inside the school was taken by medical helicopter to Mercy Medical Center in Durango, Colo. Bailey did not have an update on her condition Monday night.

The volunteer EMT, who was being treated for a broken leg he sustained during the response at the school, was also expected to remain hospitalized overnight at San Juan Hospital in Monticello.

Others affected by the gas, some of whom had passed out, were taken by bus or ambulance and treated at area hospitals, San Juan School District Superintendent Douglas Wright said.

Blue Mountain Hospital in Blanding reported treating students and school employees for dizziness, difficulty breathing and nausea.

"The CO levels rose to dangerous levels; they measured it at about 300 parts per million, which is really high," said San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman.

For adults, carbon monoxide levels can get dangerous at 35 parts per million.

CO Poisoning
Unborn babies, infants, elderly and people with respiratory problems are at the most risk

  • Persistent, severe headaches and dizziness (usually effecting more than one person in an enclosed area)
  • Nausea, vomiting and fatigue
  • Disappearance of symptoms when individuals leave the structure or area
  • If the presence of CO is suspected based on these symptoms, evacuate all persons from the structure and call the Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222, or 911.
    Info: Questar

In a series of 911 calls, a female employee of the school described the symptoms children and adults were experiencing, including dizziness, vomiting, headaches and collapsing. She first called about a little girl who was sick, then a woman.

"What's going on over there?" a dispatcher asked.

Soon after, the principal talked to the dispatcher, saying several other students were experiencing similar symptoms.

"Get as many ambulances as you can over here," the principal told the dispatcher.

The illnesses alerted school officials to the possibility of a leak.

"Within an hour they started to show some symptoms, and then by 9:30 there were a number of kids who were actually unconscious," Lyman said. "We're really concerned about the whole situation. That's not the kind of news you want to get on a Monday morning."

He did not believe that initial reports of up to 15 students being found unconscious inside the school were true.

The elementary school was evacuated, sending faculty, staff and students who were not immediately effected to nearby Whitehorse High School. Students were being evaluated at the high school. According to the sheriff's office, 30 people had been triaged at the scene.

The elementary school was closed for the rest of the school day. Classes will resume Tuesday, and a meeting will be scheduled for parents who want more information about the incident, Wright said.

Carbon monoxide detectors aren't required in the school, but the school district will be reconsidering the policy, he said.

Montezuma Creek Elementary holds kindergarten through sixth grades. About 280 students were estimated to be at the school at the time.

Contributing: Sandra Yi and Peter Samore

Montezuma Leak in a larger map


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