By the end of the day, it was reported that all but one individual had been released from the hospital. It was anticipated that the school would reopen on November 19.
Officials state that the situation could have been much worse.
As the 300 students and staff at Montezuma Creek Elementary School filed into school on November 18, they did not know that they were entering a building full of poisonous carbon monoxide gas.
They soon began feeling the impact of the deadly, but odorless gas.
The school starts every Monday morning with an assembly of students in the cafeteria. Because of a technical problem, Principal Boyd Silversmith sent the students to class after just a few minutes.
Soon afterward, a teacher and a student collapsed in the building, triggering Silversmith to issue an evacuation order. Many of the students started to experience more symptoms after they left the building.
“It is a scene I’ll never forget,” said Ron Nielson, who arrived at the school soon after the call for help went out.
“Students and teachers were huddled outside the school around those who had collapsed,” said Nielson, who serves as the San Juan School District Elementary School Supervisor. “The teachers were doing all they could to help, but it was clear that we had a major problem.”
Nielson made a call to notify arriving emergency personnel that six or seven people needed medical attention. “When I got back from the call, I saw that twice as many students had fallen in the previous minute,” said Nielson.
Students and staff who were not experiencing difficulty were transported to Whitehorse High School, which is near the elementary school. Family members were able to pick up the students at the high school.
By the time the situation was stabilized, more than 32 people had been triaged at the school. Of those, two were flown by evacuation helicopter to San Juan Regional Medical Center in Farmington, NM and more than 20 were sent by ambulance to area hospitals.
Blue Mountain Hospital, in Blanding, received the bulk of the arriving patients. They were stabilized and within two hours, they were ready to be released.
Several patients were transported to San Juan Hospital in Monticello, including an emergency responder from Montezuma Creek who injured his leg during the evacuation.
Approximately 50 people went to the Montezuma Creek Clinic, which is adjacent to the elementary school. Of those, about ten went in a school bus to Southwest Memorial Hospital in Cortez, CO.
Other students ended up in clinics in the area, including Teec Nos Pos, AZ.
Evacuated on the life flight was a third grade student and a reading coach at the school. The student was released to her family within several hours. The reading coach was admitted to the hospital and officials were considering keeping her overnight for continued observation.
A faulty hot water heater was identified as the source of the poisoning. The industrial-sized hot water heater, which is used to heat the building, was venting carbon monoxide directly into the building after an incident disabled the factory-installed exhaust vent.
Officials state that the problem could have occurred earlier in the weekend, leading to a buildup in carbon monoxide levels over time.
School officials add that the water heater was “fairly new” equipment and they had not experienced problems with it in the past. Although it is not required by code, it was anticipated that carbon monoxide monitors would be placed in the schools.
It appears as if there was no risk of explosion after the initial event, which caused the water heater to vent carbon monoxide gas into the school. The danger to people in the school was due to carbon monoxide gas and not raw, flammable propane.
A host of agencies responded to the situation, including ten ambulances and two helicopters. In addition, emergency response teams and fire fighters worked with law enforcement, tribal and school officials.
In the past week, the San Juan School District approved emergency response plans for each of the 12 schools in the district. Officials state that they will carefully review the incident and the response, and make adjustments as needed.
The level of carbon monoxide gas in the cafeteria was later measured at more than 300 parts per million (PPM). By comparison, an average home has generally less than 15 PPM, while a poorly adjusted gas stove may have levels of 30 PPM or higher.
At levels of 300 PPM, it is estimated that people would develop a headache after one or two hours of exposure and experience a loss of judgment. Death can occur in situations with more than 1,000 PPM.