A pocket-sized canister of tear gas accidentally discharged inside an Anne Arundel County school bus yesterday, sending at least 19 youngsters to the hospital with stomach ailments and breathing problems.
Five ambulances from two counties whisked the youngsters, all between 6 and 11 years old, to three area hospitals. None of the injuries was serious and all the students were released yesterday afternoon.
Police said an 8-year-old boy, a second-grader at Odenton Elementary School, carried the 20-gram canister on board and was showing it to a friend when it went off.
The boy told authorities he bought the device, described by police as a defensive tool similar to a can of Mace, at a store.
Sgt. Chuck Blevins said it is illegal to sell such a device to anyone under 18 years of age. He said investigators will meet with the boy and his parents Monday to determine where he bought the canister.
"That is one of the biggest parts of this investigation," Sergeant Blevins said. The state fire marshal's office will help in the probe.
He said such canisters commonly are used by women to fend off attackers. "The problem is it went off in such a confined area," Sergeant Blevins said, adding that all the windows in the bus were closed.
The incident occurred shortly after 9 a.m. on bus 264, headed for Odenton Elementary. The canister discharged while the bus was stopped at the intersection of Route 175 and Morgan Road.
The bus driver, Wyvette Hammond, 36, quickly pulled the bus to the side of the busy road, let the students out of the front door and back emergency exit and radioed her dispatcher to call the fire department.
"Under these conditions, it is best to get the kids off the bus," Sergeant Blevins said. "They couldn't see. You just can't stand it."
Police and school officials praised Ms. Hammond for the way she handled the incident, getting all of the young students safely across the road to a parking lot of the Bank of Glen Burnie.
"She remained calm," said Nancy Jane Adams, a spokeswoman for the Anne Arundel County School system. "She did all the right things."
Paramedics took six students to Anne Arundel Medical Center, six to Kimbrough Army Hospital at Fort Meade and three to North Arundel Hospital. Later, four parents went to the Odenton school and took their children to doctors or hospitals.
Capt. Gary Sheckells, a spokesman for the Anne Arundel County Fire Department, said four students inhaled the gas, which he described as nonlethal and nontoxic -- not as strong as the tear gas police use to disperse crowds.
Other students, he said, suffered eye and skin irritation or were taken to the hospitals as a precaution.
The 23 remaining students were taken to the school on another bus. School officials said two of the injured students were taken to school late yesterday morning by their parents.
Barbara San Gabino, principal of Odenton Elementary, said the day went smoothly, despite the many concerned parents calling to ask about their children.
"The children seem to be pretty good," Ms. San Gabino said. "We have a couple who were a little panicked, but they calmed down. It could have been a very tragic event."