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St. John Vianney Catholic Church open after Palm Sunday mystery illness

ST. PETE BEACH — Holy Week services at St. John Vianney Catholic Church are continuing as scheduled this week, despite a two-hour emergency closing Sunday when eight parishioners became ill.

The cause of the illness, first reported as possible methane gas from clogged sewer lines, is actually unknown.

"The incident is still under investigation. So far, we have found nothing that could be the cause," St. Pete Beach Fire Marshal Ernie Hand said Tuesday.

More than 1,200 people were crowded in the church for Palm Sunday services when several people collapsed.

When the city fire department responded to a 911 call, witnesses said they had smelled gas.

With police assistance, the church was evacuated, and the Pinellas County Haz-Mat Team was called in.

Eight people were treated at the scene Sunday, and four were taken to area hospitals. All were released later that afternoon.

Hand said the atmospheric testing instruments, which can measure contaminants in parts per billion, tested for methane and other gases.

"Nothing was found whatsoever, and we opened the church back up to the public," Hand said.

Overcrowding at the church is one of several causes still under investigation by the fire department and church officials.

The church, which normally holds about 1,200 people, was filled beyond capacity, with some people standing throughout the entire service.

According to reports, people first became ill while the entire congregation stood during the 20-minute Palm Sunday Gospel.

Brian Jennings, the church's operations manager, said Tuesday there have been no further reports of people smelling gas.

"It's very unfortunate, and we are still trying to figure out what happened," Jennings said. "We are open. We held two Masses yesterday and will be holding all regularly scheduled services this week."

Sunday Easter services at 8:30, 10 and 11:30 a.m. will be held in the church and in a tent on the church grounds. The 6:45 a.m. Easter sunrise service will be held in the church.

St. John Vianney Catholic Church open after Palm Sunday mystery illness 04/19/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 19, 2011 4:06pm]
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