LARGO — Rob Scholl found the exhaust fumes so strong in Clearwater Ice Arena Wednesday night, he decided to take matters into his own hands. Scholl, who was watching his 9-year-old son's ice hockey practice, walked through an employee-only section and opened a 16-foot door to let in fresh air. Then an arena employee scolded him.
"He was complaining that the humidity was going to cause a problem with the ice," said Scholl, 36, of Palmetto. "I said, well the air quality is going to cause a problem with the kids, and that's more important to me."
Within 30 minutes, Tampa Bay Junior Lightning Squirts AA players were splayed out across the parking lot, crying and complaining of breathing problems.
Largo Fire officials responding to a 911 call measured elevated levels of carbon monoxide in the arena and treated 23 people. Six players went to local hospitals but none had serious after-effects, said Squirts coach Jim Anna.
Scholl and Anna said they have complained to arena management about the fumes for weeks. Arena owner Michael Malki said Wednesday's incident was caused by a freak accident. A propane-powered dehumidifier malfunctioned, he said, causing exhaust to stay in the arena.
"We feel very sorry about what happened," said Malki, 49.
Malki initially disagreed with Scholl and said a door to the outside had been open during the practice. Then he acknowledged the door was closed until Scholl opened it. "This is an ice arena. If you have any outside air or heat coming into the building, you won't have any decent ice at all," he said.
While carbon monoxide is supposed to be odorless, Scholl and Anna say the rink smelled like car exhaust for weeks. Largo Fire detected carbon monoxide at 96 parts per million Wednesday. The average level in homes is between five and 15 parts per million, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
While the arena level wasn't lethal, David Mixson, division chief of operations for Largo Fire, said it was unsafe. "If they had just ignored it and let the kids finish the practice, we could have had an entirely different situation," he said.
Anna, 44, also coached the team of East Lake students stricken with breathing problems, dizziness and nausea in January 2009 after practicing at Tampa Bay Skating Academy in Oldsmar. A gasoline-powered ice resurfacer and poor ventilation were blamed. Anna thinks both incidents could have been prevented by carbon monoxide alarms. State law does not require the alarms in ice rinks.
The Oldsmar rink switched to electric equipment, which does not produce carbon monoxide, but employees still check carbon monoxide levels twice daily, says Glyn Jones, rink manager.
Malki said Thursday he will install an alarm.