INDIO: 22 sickened, 6 hospitalized, 1,900 evacuated after school haz-mat emergency
INDIO — Reports of students at Shadow Hills High School in Indio suddenly “feeling ill from an unusual odor” brought a large response from the City’s Fire and Police personnel, who rushed to the aid of the sickened teens and worked to determined the source of the odor, Thursday afternoon, Oct. 5.
Thursday’s incident was at least the fourth such recent emergency, where buildings – in one case a busy, hospital emergency room – were evacuated due to unexplained odors that sickened many and hospitalized others. Each of the previous incident forced the evacuations of the locations.
The incident that caused twenty-two students to fall ill and six to be hospitalized – mostly due to heat and stress-related injuries, forced the evacuation of more than 1900 students, Cal Fire/Riverside County Fire Public Information Officer April Newman explained in an incident report. Teachers, administrators and other school officials were also evacuated from the school during the emergency.
A Cal Fire/Riverside County Fire Department Hazardous Materials Team was brought in to investigate the odor, which some students described as smelling like gas. The unidentified odor could reportedly be smelled up to 100 yards away from the school.
Members of the Hazardous Materials Team eventually made entry into the school; however they “were unable to locate a source,” said Newman, who explained, “All readings done from their testing came back within normal limits.”
After the incident, Desert Sands Unified School District’s Public Information Officer Mary Perry explained only one of the students transported to the hospital became ill because of the odor. At least four additional students were transported for treatment when they became overheated after being evacuated to the school’s outdoor bleachers.
Temperatures in Indio the day of the incident reached above the mid-90’s.
The incident began during lunch when students first began reporting smelling the odor to teachers and staff. As more reports of the odor began trickling in to school administrators and they too began to smell the odor, school officials immediately called 911 and ordered all students and staff to evacuate outside to the school’s football field.
Twenty-nine firefighters from five engine companies, three paramedic squads, a Hazardous Materials Team and a Breathing Support Unit responded to the emergency about 12:23 p.m., according to Newman. Based on the scope and size of the emergency and subsequent evacuation, Riverside County Fire’s Emergency Management Department also responded to the crisis.
Because many described the odor as smelling like natural gas, Southern California Gas Company officials were summoned to the scene as well.
Soon after being evacuated to the school’s bleachers and football field, students sitting or standing in the afternoon sun began complaining of feeling overheated.
While students waited for fire officials to check for the source of the odor, and word of the gas spread among the teenagers, the first of several students fainted, causing medics to have to treat them.
One teacher, who said the students spent about one hour outside in the bleachers and asked to remain anonymous later explained, “Once the first or second student went down, it was like a wave of nausea and panic swept through the kids. After that, it was like students were dropping left and right.”
At that point, with paramedics and other resources at the scene stretched to their limits and multiple additional ambulances responding to the scene to help evaluate those falling ill and transport those needing further evaluation and treatment, school administrators made the decision to evacuate the entire school and all staff members to nearby Desert Ridge Academy Middle School.
School administrators conducted the full-school evacuation with assistance from School District officials and Indio Police officers.
Shortly after 3 p.m., about three hours after the incident was first reported, Newman updated that all 1900 students had been accounted for and most had been or were in the process of being released to their parents.
Officials are working to identify the source of the odor and the cause of the emergency. Their investigation is active and ongoing.
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Trevor Montgomery, who recently moved from Riverside County to Shasta County, runs Riverside County News Source and Shasta County News Source. Additionally, he writes for Riverside County based newspapers Valley News, The Valley Chronicle and Anza Valley Outlook as well as Bonsall/Fallbrook Village News in San Diego County.
Trevor spent 10 years in the U.S. Army as an Orthopedic Specialist before joining the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department in 1998. He was medically retired after losing his leg, breaking his back and suffering both spinal cord and brain injuries in an off-duty accident.
During his time with the sheriff’s department, Trevor worked at several different stations, including Robert Presley Detention Center, Southwest Station in Temecula, Hemet/Valle Vista Station, Ben Clark Public Safety Training Center and Lake Elsinore Station, along with other locations.
Trevor’s assignments included Corrections, Patrol, DUI Enforcement, Boat and Personal Water-Craft based Lake Patrol, Off-Road Vehicle Enforcement, Problem Oriented Policing Team and Personnel/Background Investigations. He finished his career while working as a Sex Crimes and Child Abuse Investigator and was a court-designated expert in child abuse and child sex-related crimes.
Trevor has been married for more than 27 years and was a foster parent to more than 60 children over 13 years. He is now an adoptive parent and has 13 children and 14 grandchildren.