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Cleaning supplies blamed for gas that sends 12 students, teacher to Hernando hospitals

BROOKSVILLE — The warning signs started just before 10 a.m. Friday in Room A-117 at Central High School.

Students felt burning in their eyes, noses and throats. Some felt nauseous, and some vomited, authorities said.

Within an hour or so, 12 students and one teacher had been taken to local hospitals, and hazardous materials crew members were suiting up to find the source of the irritant.

The students and teacher are expected to be okay, officials said Friday afternoon.

The suspected culprit: a bottle of polish stored underneath the sink, said Assistant Chief Frank DeFrancesco of Hernando County Fire Rescue.

Officials believe some of the polish may have leaked and mixed with chemical residue from other cleaning supplies, creating noxious fumes, DeFrancesco said.

"It was something in the air that was making these kids sick," he said. "That (bottle) was the only thing we found."

Crews ruled out the possibility that sewer gas was leaking from the sink because the sink's trap was filled with water, DeFrancesco said.

After students started to feel ill, officials evacuated the A Building — home of the school's No. 1-ranked Naval Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps program. Shortly after 10 a.m., a male student in an NJROTC uniform shook with coughs as paramedics loaded him into an ambulance.

The district used its automated call system to notify parents by 10:30 that some kind of irritant in the NJROTC building had caused some students to get sick and that the school was on lockdown.

The lockdown ended at about 11 a.m., and classes resumed, but the A Building remained closed as hazmat crews continued their work. They cleared the scene by about 1 p.m., DeFrancesco said.

The report that fumes from cleaning supplies may have been the cause came as a surprise to school officials.

The district does not use toxic cleaning chemicals, and teachers and staff are advised not to bring such cleaning supplies to school, said Barry Crowley, the district's safety and security director. Officials regularly inspect campuses for potentially hazardous materials, Crowley said.

"There were no chemicals in that classroom a month ago," he said.

A shaken campus

Superintendent Bryan Blavatt said school officials still had no conclusive evidence Friday afternoon that cleaning supplies were the cause. Blavatt said he plans to meet with emergency officials Monday to discuss the incident and their findings.

Whitney Alboszta was in history class in the nearby B Building when the lockdown began. Soon, the cell phones of Alboszta's classmates lit up with text messages from other students relaying reports of gas in the ROTC building and kids going to the hospital.

"We were kind of freaked out," said Alboszta, a junior. "You don't know if it's going to come to your building or if they're going to be okay."

Stephanie Pepe of Brooksville showed up at the campus while the school was still on lockdown. Pepe's sister, Brittany, sent her a text message saying she was in creative writing class when students were told to stay in the classroom and be quiet.

"She thought there was a killer loose on campus," Stephanie Pepe said at about 10:30, reading another text message her sister had just sent. "She says she's a little scared, and the principal said we're going to end this in a little while."

Viatta Cimino was attending a kindergarten graduation ceremony at nearby Pine Grove Elementary School when she drove by on Ken Austin Parkway and saw the fire trucks, ambulances and hazmat trucks parked in front of the high school, yellow police tape surrounding a portion of the campus.

"My heart stopped," said Cimino, whose son is a freshman at the school.

James Hall was among several parents who came to pick up their children Friday.

"Just as a precaution," Hall said.

Hall said his wife saw initial media reports of the incident, and the family also received the automated phone call at home. They grew concerned about their son, a junior.

"She was a little worried because she hadn't heard from him," Hall said.

Not many parents exercised that option, principal Joe Clifford said.

"We didn't get boatloads of people saying, 'I want my kid,' " Clifford said.

Clifford sent out another automated phone message at about 11:30 a.m. to update parents.

He said he was proud of how the school of some 1,900 students reacted to the emergency.

"They showed maturity beyond their years, and the staff was phenomenal," he said.

Clifford said he saw at least two of the students who were taken to hospitals back on campus to finish the school day.

"These are ROTC kids," he said. "They're committed."

Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or tmarrero@sptimes.com.

Cleaning supplies blamed for gas that sends 12 students, teacher to Hernando hospitals 06/04/10 [Last modified: Friday, June 4, 2010 9:23pm]

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