Carbon monoxide leak sends more than 50 to hospital from Finch Elementary



ATLANTA - A carbon monoxide leak at Finch Elementary sent at least 44 children and 10 adults to the hospital.

The Atlanta Fire Department said they were called to the school around 8:30 a.m. Monday and started evacuating about 500 students to a nearby middle school.

Police and investigators remained at the school late Monday afternoon as the state fire marshal's office tried to pinpoint the exact source of the carbon monoxide. Firefighters said the levels were so high that  a person could pass out within seconds.

"When I came back to school there's kids laying on the floor, at least three. Teachers were saying and children were saying they need help breathing," one upset parent told Channel 2's Craig Lucie.

Lucie said he could see parents running behind firefighters as they carried their sick children out.

Several mothers told Lucie it was a chaotic scene when students started to become dizzy. Many said they rushed to the school not knowing if their child was on the way to the hospital.

"My baby is at the hospital, and he already has bronchitis and asthma, and I told them that. They wouldn't go check for me or nothing," parent Toki Price said.

"I saw kids passing out, saw them shivering. I saw kids moving around dizzy. Their head was starting to hurt," student Rhyanna Tyson said.

Firefighters think the carbon monoxide originated from a faulty water loop valve for the school's heating system.

One by one, children were rushed to Children's Healthcare of Atlanta at Hughes Spalding. Sickened adults were taken to Grady Memorial Hospital.

Firefighters said when they tested the CO levels, they were 1,700 parts per million, the highest they had ever seen.

"The readings are at that level. It only takes three seconds of exposure to have someone pass out, so they are extremely dangerous readings," Atlanta Fire Department Battalion Chief Todd Edwards said.

Channel 2 investigative reporter Mark Winne found out from firefighters there were no carbon monoxide detectors inside the school.

Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Erroll Davis held a news conference and commended school principal Carol Evans for her handling of the situation.

Davis said fire marshals walked the school with CO meters and confirmed the presence of carbon monoxide. Although he believes the issue was with a boiler, it passed state inspection last year.

Davis said a discussion about carbon monoxide detectors in schools has already taken place.

Parents show up in a panic

As students arrived at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta at Hughes Spalding to get checked out, Channel 2's Shae Rozzi saw nurses checking on the students, checking their breathing with stethoscopes as they got off a bus.

Rozzi spotted at least eight ambulances arriving at the hospital with people on board, and a bus carrying dozens of Finch students.

Nurses asked the children questions about their symptoms, trying to evaluate their exposure to carbon monoxide at the school. Each child would then check in at a triage station and enter the emergency department.

Rozzi said parents arrived all day in a panic, desperate for answers.

"What have you been able to hear so far?" Rozzi asked one mother.

"Nothing. I just came to pick up my daughter," the mother said.

"Do you know if she's OK? Have you been able to hear from her?" Rozzi asked her.

"I don't know. No, I don't," the mother said.

"My other son, you guys had him on the news on the stretcher, and I'm trying to pick him up now," parent Tiffany Cain told Rozzi.

Other parents rushed first to the school.

"She was in the line and shaking real bad," said parent Hariett Gray, who took her daughter, Malea Gray, on her own to the hospital.

"She's a premie, born a premie, and she could not breathe this morning. She's been going to the doctor every Thursday and Friday for the last three weeks, and the chief fireman said that's the highest carbon monoxide he'd ever known," she added.

The children taken to the hospital by emergency medical services have since been released.


10 adults taken to Grady

Ten of the adults overcome in the school poisoning incident were treated at Grady Memorial Hospital in downtown Atlanta.

A representative from the hospital told Channel 2's Tony Thomas all 10 of the people brought there were expected be released by Monday night.

Hospital officials told Thomas none of the patients wanted to talk about what they've gone through.

Along with children, some of the affected adults arrived to the downtown hospital complex by bus.

One by one, they had their breathing checked. Some appeared more shaken than the kids. Others arrived amid a long line of ambulances.

"Some had more exposure than others. They had various degrees of symptoms including headache, some dizziness. Some had some chest pain," Grady Hospital Assistant Medical Director Dr. Hany Atallah said. "I think I would probably describe it as a moderate exposure."

When reports first came in from Finch Elementary, Atallah said Grady staffers began preparing for the worst, calling several area hyperbaric chambers in case the carbon monoxide levels were high enough to require the advanced treatment.

Hospital officials said none of the 10 adults needed that, but all the adults were given oxygen, evaluated and were being prepped to go home.

"I think I would probably describe it as a moderate exposure," Atallah said.

Grady officials told Thomas the adults being treated at Grady were civilians, presumably school employees.


Parents upset they couldn't see their children

Children not transported to the hospital were taken to Brown Middle School, where parents could pick them up, and it was a chaotic scene.

School officials told Channel 2's Dave Huddleston they were trying to keep things in order when parents arrived to pick up their children.

Officials had police tape around the doors and parents had to sign in for their child to be released.

Many parents panicked and just wanted their children. Many parents were furious they couldn't immediately get their children.

They had to wait outside, sign a release form and then school officials would go get their child.

Many parents, especially those with multiple children, felt the district didn't understand their frustration.

"It's kind of disturbing because I'm concerned about my other ones. It's really upsetting they're not letting us get to our kids," parent Natasha Brown said. "Get the children to the parents, it's enough of the foolishness with Atlanta Public Schools, they have got to get it together."

Eventually the situation calmed down and the parents were reunited with their children.

One woman told Huddleston it was nerve-racking waiting for them to go get her child, but she understands they couldn't just let people run through the school grabbing their children.

"They had to make it organized. You have to check your child out so you have to be patient. You can't just snatch your child and that's what they wanted to do," another parent said.

The district said they didn't want parents roaming through the halls of the schools, while the middle-school students were still in class.

Officials said parents had to sign for their children so they could check to make sure the correct custodial parent was picking up their child.

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