Gas leak sickens students

Backed-up Ignacio sewer line believed to be cause of problem


An Ignacio Junior High School student sits in the back of an ambulance Monday waiting to be taken to Mercy Regional Medical Center. Noxious odors forced the evacuation of the school and sent more than 25 students to the hospital with nonlife-threatening injuries. Enlarge photo

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald

An Ignacio Junior High School student sits in the back of an ambulance Monday waiting to be taken to Mercy Regional Medical Center. Noxious odors forced the evacuation of the school and sent more than 25 students to the hospital with nonlife-threatening injuries.

IGNACIO – Thirty Ignacio Junior High students suffering from headaches or nausea were taken to local hospitals Monday morning after a backed up sewer line caused nonexplosive but overwhelmingly pungent gases to flow into an eighth-grade science classroom.

Authorities were alerted by the school at 11:27 a.m. and multiple agencies responded, including the Upper Pine River Fire Protection District, Los Pinos Fire Protection District and Durango Fire & Rescue Authority.

Testing showed that gas levels were well below the threshold of being potentially explosive, said Tom Aurnhammer, deputy chief of Los Pinos Fire Protection District. Gas lines that feed Bunsen burners in the room were turned off as well.

The students were transported to Mercy Regional Medical Center and Animas Surgical Hospital.

By early evening, all 20 students who had been taken to Mercy Regional Medical Center had been treated and released, Mercy spokesman David Bruzzese said, adding that none of the students had been admitted.

All of the students who were transported to Animas Surgical Hospital were released to their parents within a few hours, said Peggy Patterson, the hospital’s director of quality. The students arrived with complaints of nausea, vomiting and headaches, Patterson said.

Upon hearing news of a potential gas leak, staff evacuated the junior high school, but students returned to their classes after lunch.

School officials originally suspected the noxious gases emanated from the contents of a sediment-collection tank located beneath the classroom, but further inspection showed the sewer line was at fault, Ignacio School District Superintendent Rocco Fuschetto said. The sewer line backed up into the science classroom, causing noxious odors to flow up through the sink and floor drains, Fuschetto said.

The sewer line infrastructure was likely installed in 1998 as part of an addition to the junior high school.

The teacher in the classroom, Joseph Duffy, said he was aware the room had some drainage issues. On Monday, the stench got to a point where it was a little worse than normal, Duffy said. He took the students outside and turned on the fan in the classroom, which seemed to help.

About half of the students in Duffy’s science class then went to English teacher Kathy Herrera’s class where several started complaining about headaches and nausea, Herrera said.

They mentioned the smell of gas in the science classroom, which spurred Herrera to notify school officials of a potential health issue. In all her years teaching, she hasn’t had an experience like this one.

“It’s a first I don’t want to repeat,” she said.

Herald Staff Writer Ann Butler contributed to this report. ecowan@durangoherald.com

View other articles on our locator map.

Comments » Read and share your thoughts on this story