Stench sends Central High School students home early for the third time in four weeks


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ST. CROIX - What started out as a normal school day Tuesday turned into utter chaos and pandemonium for hundreds of students at Central High School when some type of noxious fumes caused dozens of them to experience vomiting, headaches and dizziness, while a few even fainted, collapsing in front of their schoolmates.

Tuesday's incident across the campus was the third instance of a foul odor in just more than a month, and school officials said that they have had enough and need to get answers for their peace of mind and so parents and students can feel confident that the campus is safe.

While some staff at the school also reported experiencing headaches, burning sensations in their chest and lungs or nausea, none went to the hospital for treatment.

31 students sent to Luis

Luis Hospital Chief Medical Officer Dr. Mavis Matthew said the hospital received a call of a disaster alert just after 1 p.m., so they mobilized all available resources and waited. She said 31 students were brought into the emergency room with varying symptoms including rapid breathing, elevated heart rate, dizziness, headache, nausea, vomiting, altered mental state and involuntary movements.

The students were given clinical assessments, stabilized and most were treated with oxygen or IV or a combination of both, Matthew said.

She said the hospital had not been able to determine what the patients had been exposed to, and 27 of the students had been released by 5 p.m., but others still were being treated and held for additional observation.

As a result of the magnitude of the impact from the fumes Tuesday, V.I. Education Commissioner Donna Frett-Gregory has determined that it is in the best interest of everyone that classes at the school be suspended until Monday to allow an investigatory team to access the campus and begin to narrow down possible sources of the odor.

Some type of gas

St. Croix School Superintendent Gary Molloy was on campus once the authorities were contacted on Tuesday. By early afternoon, he, too, described feeling faint as he stood inside the enclosed, air-conditioned gymnasium.

He said the odor was of some type of gas, but even when the smell was not noticeable it still was affecting people.

"How many times are we going to go through this and then say it is safe, just to go through it again?" he asked. "Our children are losing confidence in us, and we need to stop and look at the situation and really get to the bottom of it or find some alternative solutions."

While waiting on the campus for parents or school buses to pick them up, many students used their school shirts or gym shirts as an air filter to make breathing easier. One student wore a surgical mask he said a nurse gave him when he started feeling ill.

According to the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency emergency call log, a report of a strange odor was called into 911 emergency dispatchers just after 10 a.m. Tuesday, but no determination was made at that time to send the students home.

At 1:09 p.m., another call was made reporting the odor, and at that time, government agencies responded, buses were called and parents rushed to the school to get their children as the news of the dismissal spread on the radio and through social media.

Dropping like flies

Some students described the scene on the campus as something out of a disaster film, saying that students were taking ill right before their eyes, some throwing up uncontrollably and others feeling faint, then passing out and dropping like flies.

Molloy said the juniors had been inside the music building taking the annual VITAL tests, many of the seniors were off campus attending workshops at the University of the Virgin Islands, and the freshmen and sophomores were in class. Once the reports began to come in, it was a steady stream of students getting sick, he said.

"We have our response plan, so we got the kids together and moved from there, but so many of them were experiencing symptoms, the staff was busy moving them," Molloy said.

Many of the students became panicked, especially those who experienced breathing difficulty, according to Molloy. The school's main office was full of students, the nurse's room was full of students and students were being taken away by ambulances once the vehicles began to arrive, he said.

Nurses from other schools also arrived to lend assistance.

"We had a number of ambulances that came to transport students, parents were coming once they heard of the situation, and it was just frustration for everyone all around," Molloy said.

Anguished parents

Lydia Rivera was one of the parents who went to the school after hearing of the dismissals.

"I was doing business for work in the field and saw two ambulance pass, and I thought that was not good, so I went to look on Facebook to see if anything was posted, and I saw the notice that classes were canceled," she said.

Rivera said she then got a call from the school saying she should come and get her daughter. She said knowing that her daughter has an ongoing medical condition, she tried to go through the routine procedure of picking her up, but when she got to the school it was chaos.

"I pulled up and the gate was closed, so I told them I came to get Emily," Rivera said. "They let me in and someone said, oh, they were taking her to the ambulance, and I just lost it."

Rivera said she was among several other parents who were trying to determine whether their children had fallen ill and to what degree. "The EMTs were working hard, and the staff was trying to keep the children calm and get help for those who needed it," she said.

Once Rivera got to the office, she said there were dozens of children sitting or laying on the ground, many were crying, some were vomiting, some were shaking and others just looked really sad and sick.

"I've never seen anything like that. I was scared for my baby girl, then they told me to meet her at the hospital," she said. "There were so many sick children, they had to pack them in the ambulance five and six at a time and have them share the oxygen."

Shortly after 4 p.m., Emily was among a handful of students who had been treated and were trickling out of the emergency room of Luis Hospital. Many looked tired and dazed as they left.

Claudia Serrano had a longer wait at the hospital as her daughter went through three rounds of oxygen treatment and had not responded well.

Serrano said she is frustrated with the situation of the odor at the school and wants answers.

"I don't believe anybody should go back there, not until we get answers about what is really going on," she said. "They said they have done testing, so they need to do more, bring in more professionals and get to the bottom of this."

Hospital in disaster mode

While all of the students who reported to the hospital were seen by physicians in the emergency room or in a nearby unit, the cafeteria had been cleared out and outfitted with treatment and monitoring equipment along with cots in order to accommodate additional patients if the need arose.

Dr. Kendall Griffith, Luis Hospital chief executive officer, said the hospital was well-prepared for the disaster. He said it was not the first time the hospital had to spring into disaster-response mode, so they had a structure in place and were ready.

In a statement issued Tuesday evening by Government House, Gov. John deJongh Jr. said despite a week of air-quality testing by the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, officials have been unable to determine what the odor is or where it is coming from.

He said they have been able to rule out that the odor is being caused by work at the HOVENSA refinery, where personnel have been scrubbing the huge storage tanks for several weeks now.

"We have confirmed that the odor is only being reported from time to time on the campus of Central High School and that there are no reports of this odor being reported from surrounding neighborhoods or businesses," deJongh said. "The odor is not constant. It is intermittent, which makes it even more difficult to pinpoint its origin."

Task force formed

DPNR staff reported that its air-quality testing showed no significant pollutants in the air that would represent a health risk, according to Government House.

DeJongh said he has directed DPNR Commissioner Alicia Barnes to coordinate an investigation with the Waste Management Authority, Fire Service, Public Works, and the OSHA division of the Labor Department to exclude any potential source for the odor.

He said Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency will continue to act as a coordinating entity for all agencies now deployed to identify the source of the odor.

- Contact Fiona Stokes at 714-9149 or email fstokes@dailynews.vi.

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