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Multiple Patients in Colorado School Illness; Odor Remains a Mystery

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LOVELAND - Firefighters with state-of-the-art equipment could find no signs of a noxious gas that sent 47 children and five adults to area hospitals Tuesday from Winona Elementary School.

After spending hours inside the school at 201 S. Boise Ave. with sensitive detectors, officials still did not know what sickened the students at the school.

"We couldn't get any readings," said Merlin Green, Loveland fire marshal. "We don't know exactly what took place." School officials called for medics after a few students began complaining of dizziness and nausea, Green said.

Soon, more were feeling ill, and administrators evacuated the entire school, which has 450 students, to a grassy area across the street.

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A row of students sat on the curb outside the school receiving oxygen from Thompson Valley Emergency Medical Services medics until, one by one, they were sent either to McKee Medical Center or Medical Center of the Rockies in Loveland or Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins.

The hospitals reported 52 patients from the school. All were treated and released by late afternoon. Virgie Mucha rushed to Medical Center of the Rockies to be with her son, Matthew.

"Oh my gosh," she said. "I wondered: Is he scared? Who is with him? I just wanted to run and get to him as fast as possible." Doctors gave her son medication to help with the nausea, and he bounced back.

"He's fine now," Mucha said late afternoon with her son at home. "He jumped up out of the bed at the hospital and was eating crackers and wanting to go home." Matthew is in the third grade -- the same grade as many of those who became ill.

Some of his classmates were physically ill, while others simply felt nauseated, according to parents.

While carbon monoxide is one of several possibilities, it has no smell. Some students described an odor, possibly natural gas, in the school. Corry Stewart, 9, covered his nose with his jacket as he walked home with his mom. "It was just a funny smell," he said.

"It smelled like throw-up gas," added his little brother, 8-year-old Ezra. "Like rotten eggs."

Parents rushed to the school after receiving automated telephone calls from the district or hearing about the evacuation from friends.

Many arrived just in time to watch buses take their children a few blocks west to Mirasol Senior Living Community and expressed frustration about having to go to another location to pick up their children. They did, however, and the early release went smoothly.

Stephanie Wood was relieved to find both her children, 10-year-old Hunter Ballardo and 7-year-old Dylan Wood, doing fine. "Our teacher was hurrying us up," said Hunter. "She said, 'This is not a drill. This is real. She grabbed her guinea pig and her laptop." "It just smelled weird."

Wes Fothergill, district spokesman, acknowledged that something could have blown into the ventilation system, potentially from the nearby wastewater treatment plant. "Winds out of the south may have carried some fumes into the HVAC system, but there's no way to even know that," Fothergill said.

The Winona school should reopen today. But first, to be safe, fire and school officials will test the building again at 5 a.m.

It is not the first time that Winona Elementary School has had to deal with odor issues.

In November 1991, paramedics treated 130 people, mostly children, who complained of dizziness and runny eyes caused by an unknown odor. By spring of 1992, with the odor continuing on and off, officials had determined that mold in the duct work was the most likely culprit. The school was closed for the final three months of the 1991-92 school year and part of the next as the district replaced the school's entire heating and duct system.



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