Elementary school panics the day after ammonia spill

The Baltimore Sun

The ammonia spill that hit a West Baltimore neighborhood Thursday night was legitimate, but rumors - not noxious fumes - touched off the panic that engulfed an elementary school hours later, fire officials said.

The Thursday night spill occurred when workers at a shuttered ice-making factory accidentally ruptured a tube containing ammonia gas. Scores of residents were evacuated from homes, and there were complications for commuters yesterday morning because of the incident.

One person was hospitalized as fire crews worked overnight to clean up the scene, before allowing residents to return to their homes. Yet the fears of ammonia in the air did not dissipate so easily.

A mile away, at 9 a.m. yesterday, firefighters and paramedics rushed to Frederick Elementary School after receiving a report of dozens of students sickened by ammonia. Parents swarmed to the building and pulled their children from school.

Four teachers were taken out of the school on stretchers. Firefighters and city and state hazardous-materials teams patrolled the hallways and grounds with sophisticated air-quality sensors that could detect hazardous chemicals.

Some parents outside the school expressed fears that an ammonia cloud from the earlier incident at the one-time Baltimore American Ice Co. in the 2100 block of W. Franklin St., had floated from West Baltimore to Southwest Baltimore. Residents of the 500 block of Pulaski St. had to leave their homes, and some spent the night at a shelter.

"The teacher called, and I thought she said 'pneumonia.' Then a neighbor called and said 'a-mmonia," said Kim Wolfe, who went to the school to pick up her daughter. "I knew there was an outbreak last night on Pulaski Street. ... I didn't think it would come up here. I didn't smell anything."

Neither did emergency crews that responded to the scene. After about an hour of investigation, fire officials walked out of the school building on Frederick Road and declared it safe.

Chief Kevin Cartwright, a city Fire Department spokesman, said emergency crews found no evidence of ammonia or any other toxic substances. And rumors of an ammonia cloud drifting over from the West Baltimore spill were just that - rumors, city emergency management officials said.

"It is an unknown phenomenon, I guess," Cartwright said.

Emergency responders treated the call seriously - it was dispatched as a "mass-casualty incident" - because it came from the school, he said.

No students were injured; two reported pre-existing stomachaches. The teachers who were taken out on stretchers experienced other conditions - such as hypertension, nausea, headaches and allergies - that officials said were likely stress-related.

By midmorning, however, 131 of the school's 310 students had been taken home by their parents, fire officials said. Parents were allowed to take their children from school, but a top school official at the scene said the school would remain open.

"Parents can take their kids at any time, but the school remains open," said J. Keith Scroggins, chief operating officer for the Baltimore school system.

Scroggins chalked up the incident to a moment of "hysteria" that school and emergency management officials nonetheless treated seriously.

But two schools in the area of the earlier incident in West Baltimore were closed. Students were turned away from Bentalou and Lockerman Bundy elementary schools after the buildings were ordered shuttered for the day as a precaution.

Maryland Rail Commuter train service at the West Baltimore station was not available for the morning, but resumed shortly after noon yesterday, said the Maryland Transit Administration.

gus.sentementes@baltsun.com

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