OLDSMAR — The lights on the rink usually look white to him, but an ice hockey coach at the Tampa Bay Skating Academy noticed they looked yellow at practice Thursday.
So Jim Anna, head coach of a team composed of East Lake High School students, asked the driver of the Zamboni machine resurfacing the ice if the lights were new.
The driver shook his head, but the coach wasn't sure what that meant.
Before long, two players said they felt sick and the assistant coach started coughing and was having trouble getting his breath. As practice ended, the team manager asked Anna what was wrong with him.
"Either I'm having a heart attack or I broke a rib," he told her. "Because I can't breathe."
By the next night, 21 of the 24 players and the three adults on staff had suffered symptoms like shortness of breath, coughing, dizziness and nausea. Five had nosebleeds and two were coughing up blood. At least four went to the doctor and two to the hospital.
The Tampa Bay Skating Academy released a statement Tuesday, saying a gasoline-powered ice edger was used Thursday morning, possibly without adequate ventilation, and that might have caused the incident. So the rink has put new procedures in place to avoid a recurrence.
"We will continue to make every effort to make sure our users are safe and enjoy our facility," the statement said.
Also Tuesday, the Pinellas County Hazardous Materials Team checked the skating academy at 255 Forest Lakes Blvd. N for flammable gases in the air. Craig Maciuba, the deputy commander in charge, said the Zamboni machine there uses propane and the hazardous materials team didn't find any leaks.
"Of course, it's five days later," he said.
He said he went to the rink for other calls in the past when the rink opened, maybe 12 years ago or more. The Zamboni machine at that time was not burning the gas completely, he said, so it emitted a higher concentration of carbon dioxide than it should.
The East Lake team's head coach thinks the Zamboni was releasing a gas called nitrogen dioxide and that caused the symptoms. He based that on Internet research.
Maciuba confirmed that nitrogen dioxide is another gas that can be released from the ice machines and might cause respiratory symptoms.
Andrew Habasevich, 16, a junior at East Lake High School from Oldsmar, said he went home from practice Thursday and watched the University of Florida football championship. After the game, he started having trouble breathing.
"I couldn't take a deep breath or exhale all the way," he said, then he was nauseated and coughing.
He has asthma, but he said this cough was different.
The next day, he still had some trouble breathing but he wanted to play in the game Friday night. One goalie had been injured and the other was now coughing up blood. He was the only one left.
"As the game went on, I started to feel dizzy," he said. "There was one point where I had double vision."
After the game, his concern lay elsewhere.
"We lost the game," he said. "The first game we had lost in nearly three years."
Theresa Blackwell can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4170.