Mystery shrouds illness at Holmes

       It's a mystery a crime detective might relish.

Standing on the stage in the Holmes Middle School cafeteria, Principal Rob Utter talks to a parent forum April 27 about the mysterious outbreak of students feeling ill the afternoon of April 22. Behind him sit officials and/or health specialists, nearly all from the city or School District 11.
Westside Pioneer photo

       Ninety-seven of the 725 students at Holmes Middle School reported getting sick April 22. Typical symptoms involved fainting, dizziness, headaches and throwing up.
       The causes are unknown.
       No one became extremely ill. Out of 16 that were transported to the hospital for treatment, none had to be admitted, reported Bill Mayfield, hazardous materials specialist with Memorial Hospital.
       He was speaking as part of a forum with about 40 Holmes parents April 27 that also included close to 20 representatives and/or specialists from District 11 and the City Fire and Police departments.
       Comments from several of these individuals brought out that, in the wake of the incident, there have been extensive, yet fruitless studies to figure out what happened. These include investigating the school's ventilation system, repeated monitoring for harmful chemicals and gases since April 22, and even searching (as revealed by D- 11 environmental specialist Dan Moors) every classroom, locker and trash can for possible evidence. Also, Principal Rob Utter said that all activities at the school that day have been examined for the use of toxic substances, but that's drawn a blank too.
       Monitoring will continue, parents were reassured by Neal Case, the district's chief of mechanical systems.
       The forum also revealed a level of confusion that prevailed on the day of the incident. Initially, the call to 911 at 2:40 p.m. was for two students from a classroom who said they were feeling sick. But when a truck from Fire Station 5 arrived, the number had increased to 12, recounted Fire Department Battalion Chief Tommy Smith. At that point, a hazardous materials team was called in. Before long, more students were complaining and the student body was being divided up - healthy kids to the gym, sick kids to the cafeteria.
       This led to increased security by police and fire officials, to the point where school administrators were no longer allowed access to the school's main building, thus preventing the school from placing automated phone calls to parents or posting information on the school website, Utter summarizes in a letter to parents.
       He said he had hoped the local news media would fill people in, because they were on scene through much of the afternoon, but this did not occur as hoped for, and besides the story was changing as officials on the scene kept trying to get a handle on how many students were sick and how safe the buildings were.
       “As the situation evolved,” Utter's letter continues, “changes were made to the plan of how to release and transport of students. Because access to the area around Holmes was being limited by CSPD, all students were to be transported to the Masonic building at 1150 Panorama Drive. The logistics of accounting for every Holmes student and coordinating D-11 transportation in a systematic process proved to be lengthy, however, necessary to ensure the safety and welfare of every child at Holmes.”
       Parents at the meeting were not totally satisfied. Until their children came home late April 22, many did not where they were. And, one parent at the meeting pointed out, the forum itself could have been advertised better, which would have meant more people attending.
       Students were allowed to return to school Monday, April 26 (April 23 was a scheduled no-school day), and Principal Rob Utter said there were a few more sickness complaints that day, followed by others (but not as many) April 27.
       One point that has come up - to the displeasure of several parents - is that some students were not really sick and were just complaining because others were. According to Smith, some medics on the scene may have made comments to that effect, adding that it was wrong of them to do so and they would be “held accountable.”
       However, Smith said, it is true, even with adults in similar situations, people typically will feel sick after seeing others feeling sick. And Utter said one mistake that might have been made April 22 was that when presumably healthy kids were sent to the gym, they got routed through the cafeteria, which allowed them to see fellow students being treated.
       Overall, Smith said, despite the problems, he believes the event had a “successful outcome.” More than 700 students were processed for health issues, and within 45 minutes the few that were determined to need greater help “were on their way to the hospital,” he said.
       Some parents were particularly concerned about a room in the building's north wing, where students' initial complaints had come from. But Utter added that “not all the sickest kids were from that classroom.”
       Case elaborated that, while the carbon dioxide readings in that room have shown up as slightly higher than desirable - a fact that's being looked into, he added - their readings of 1,400 parts per million are still well below the minimum unhealthy threshold of 5,000, as set by the (Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). And, Mayfield said, to get the kind of illness levels that were being reported April 22, “you would need 30,000 parts per million.”
       Speaking generally, Mayfield told the assemblage that from the symptoms that were shown by the ill students, the culprit would appear to have been inhaled hydrocarbons of some kind.
       Some children reportedly said they smelled something, such as paint thinner, but the only odd smell Utter said he knows of is right inside the school's main door, which he said is typical after cleaning the carpets.
       Adding to the difficulty of finding the answer, he added, “the school nurse says something viral is going around.”
       He expressed a willingness to work with parents on future testing related to the school's geothermal system, although he did not think there was too much chance of that being a problem. The system provides climate control through a contained, constantly looping fluid in a network of above- and below-ground pipes. Installed three years ago, it eliminated the school's need for a gas-fired boiler to provide heat.

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