Unusually high amounts of carbon monoxide are suspected of sickening 32 pupils yesterday at Chase Elementary School, forcing the evacuation of the building and scaring parents.
The pupils, who were in a chorus class in the cafeteria, complained of dizziness, nausea and fatigue - symptoms of carbon monoxide exposure - and were taken to area hospitals, which had released all of them by late afternoon.
It was unclear what caused the children to become ill, despite hours of testing by environmental officers, hazardous-material crews and health inspectors. Possibilities included a leak in the kitchen or from a furnace.
"My stomach was feeling really weird," said Katrina Gee, 10. "Then kids started passing out. Some started screaming, crying. We didn't know what was happening to us. The teachers and vice principal helped everybody get outside."
Dona Eads, who lives by the school, said, "I was worried to death." She hurried over after seeing HAZMAT trucks at the school and promptly picked up her 7-year-old son and an 8-year-old neighbor.
School officials, who hired a consultant to determine the cause over the weekend, are expected to decide tomorrow afternoon whether the 359 pupils can return to the school in eastern Baltimore County on Monday.
The scare, which started at 10:36 a.m., evoked a science-fiction thriller with pupils falling listlessly to the ground and others rushing nervously to the nurse's office before the entire school was evacuated 25 minutes later.
Kristen Williams, 10, said, "People just started fainting. One was standing up; another fell out of her chair. I felt pretty dizzy, but the teacher helped us get out. I laid on the grass outside the school for about 20 minutes."
The fifth-grader was then taken to Franklin Square Hospital Center in Rosedale. "I'm OK now," she said yesterday afternoon outside the hospital.
Although many parents said they were pleased with the school system's response, others complained that they weren't notified. Some parents of children taken to hospitals added that they weren't told which hospital was treating their child.
Phyllia Patterson's brother called her at work. "I was nearly at the school when I finally received a call from officials - there was a lot of confusion," said Patterson, who was informed that her daughter was taken to Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air.
Other parents were upset because they were blocked from picking up their children because they forgot to bring identification.
School officials said the school's closing hindered their efforts to notify parents of the incident. "Our first priority was to get the kids out of the school and then to begin contacting parents," said Charles A. Herndon, spokesman for Baltimore County schools.
"It was handled quite well," Thomas Myers, Chase Elementary's PTA president, said of school officials' reaction to the emergency.
In all, 17 pupils were taken to Franklin Square, five were taken to Upper Chesapeake Medical Center, and 10 to Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore.
Tests showed that three of the pupils taken to Bayview had slightly elevated levels of carbon monoxide. But Kerry Van Voorhis, their doctor, said the levels were within the normal range, and he did not expect any long-term effects.
The incident marred what had been an unusually smooth start to the school year at schools such as Chase Elementary, which had undergone a major renovation over the summer and had reported few problems.
During the summer, the school received a computer wiring upgrade, security system, new ceiling tiles and a fresh paint job, said Thomas Myers, PTA president.
School officials, who could not provide the building's age or describe its summer facelift, said the renovations were completed in August. One of the school's two furnaces, which had not been turned on, was inspected in 2001 and the other this year.
Under a new emergency response plan formulated after the Sept. 11 attacks, students were evacuated from the school to its field. Then, because of bad weather, they went next door to the Eastern Regional Community Center.
Emergency crews wrapped yellow police tape around the building as dozens of firefighters wearing air packs and staff from the Maryland Department of the Environment and Baltimore County Health Department went inside to test the air.
The building's gas was off.
County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger rushed to the scene, where parents' cars competed for space with fire trucks and HAZMAT vehicles.
Inside the recreation center's gymnasium, school officials crossed the names of pupils off a list before letting parents, guardians or neighbors took them. The remaining pupils went home by bus, accompanied by teachers who made sure an adult was home to take care of them. The school was officially closed at 1:30 p.m.
Outside Franklin Square's Emergency Room, Lindsey Johnson, 10, recalled trying to remain calm and a leader as a classmate passed out beside her and her own head throbbed.
"The ambulance brought me here, they checked me out and I felt pretty good," Lindsey said, "especially after I snuggled with my mother."