Children sickened in carbon monoxide leak in southern Utah

Published: Monday, Nov. 18 2013 8:18 p.m. MST

Several students and teachers at Montezuma Creek Elementary School were treated for possible carbon monoxide poisoning Monday.

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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 first 911 call came at 8:20 a.m. when a student started to show symptoms, followed by a call at 9:20 a.m. for an adult who had collapsed. A third emergency call came in at 9:40 a.m. reporting that multiple people needed help.

"Within an hour, they started to show some symptoms," San Juan County Commissioner Phil 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."

Lyman said the CO levels were highest near the school's kitchen.

"The CO2 levels rose to dangerous levels. They measured it at about 300 parts per million, which is really high," he said.

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

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

Students were evacuated to nearby Whitehorse High School, where emergency crews set up a staging area. Those who needed additional medical attention were taken to local hospitals.

Emergency medical service crews from Montezuma Creek, Bluff, Monticello and Blanding, along with three ambulances from the Navajo Nation and numerous fire and law enforcement officers, responded to the scene.

Some parents chose to pick their children up from the high school and take them to area medical centers for evaluation.

Classes at the elementary school 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.

Contributing: Sandra Yi

Email: preavy@deseretnews.com

Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam

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