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Chemical contaminate sends students to Cape Hospital; All OK minus sore throats, rashes

By Staff | May 23, 2008

Students were minutes from dismissal at East Lee County High School Thursday when a chemical irritant released into a science classroom left 40 sophomores and juniors and two staff members with rashes, sore throats and other physical irritations.

As a precautionary measure, those affected were taken by LeeTran buses, ambulance or of their own volition to the Cape Coral Hospital to be decontaminated in hazardous materials tents and evaluated by physicians.

All of those students have since been released into the custody of their parents.

“My son called me at 2:15 (p.m.) and told me something happened in the classroom,” said Jennifer Irizarry, whose sons Christopher, 14, and Michael, 17, were both affected by the chemical mishap.

Though Christopher was in the room where the chemical was released, Michael was in an adjacent classroom.

“The teacher got on the phone and said they were taking them to the hospital,” she said.

“My son was in good spirits,” Irizarry added of Christopher. “He was laughing.”

Irizarry said she is confident in his full recovery, and that he complained only of a scratchy throat.

Emergency Room Dr. Tim Dougherty worked directly with the affected children, and said they were mostly symptomatic free by the evening.

“The symptoms are consistent with chemical irritation; burning, itching, watery eyes,” he said.

Dougherty said the chemical that was released into the air most likely traveled through the air duct into the class next door, affecting those students as well. Those closer to the chemical and air vents and those with allergic reactions were likely the ones with rashes on their skin.

The others had less serious symptoms, he said.

“My granddaughter’s doing well,” said Irene Dworzanski.

Dworzanski was at the Cape Coral Hospital to pick up 14-year-old Michelle Roman.

“She smelled an odor, was coughing and had a sore throat,” Dworzanski said.

“Everybody was really nice. It was well-handled. But it’s been a really long day,” Michelle said. “It was a lot of waiting, but what can you do?”

Though the plastic hazmat garb was admittedly a nice look, Michelle did not feel the need to hold onto her white jumpsuit as a keepsake.

“I’ll probably keep it for like two days,” Michelle said, laughing, “and then I’ll just throw it away.”

Michelle was in the same class as Irizarry’s son Christopher, and Dworzanski and Irizarry got a chance to meet and get acquainted while waiting at the hospital.

“I think the Lee County School System handled this quite well. I felt quite comfortable,” Dworzanski said.

Lee County School Board spokesperson Joe Donzelli said that when the chemical was released into the classroom — sometime between the 1:15 and 1:45 p.m. dismissal time — the school was evacuated and hazmat took over, decontaminating students at the school.

Staff members were not able to enter the building to contact parents, but attempted to do so via cell phones in the parking lot, he said.

All parents would be informed of exactly what happened at the school, he added.

Though the cause is not known to be intentional or accidental, Donzelli said the school board would use the “full extent of the law” to prosecute anyone discovered to have caused the afternoon fiasco.

No chemicals were found in the classrooms as a result of hazmat testing, and the school will be open today, he said.

The Cape Coral Hospital was used to treat the students as a decontamination facility because it was the facility best equipped to deal with a chemical situation of this kind, according to Nursing Director of the Emergency Department Polly Spate.

“We have two toxicology specialists on staff,” said Spate.

The rest of the hospital was able to operate normally during the incident, said spokesperson Karen Krieger.