Polk early college students evacuated, taken to hospital

Published 3:36 pm Monday, October 20, 2008

&dquo;Everybody is fine and responding and awake,&dquo; said Patterson. &dquo;(Emergency workers) responded very quickly and were very professional and that really helped.&dquo;

Bobby Arledge of the Columbus Fire Department, which led the response with help from numerous area agencies, reported dangerously high levels of carbon monoxide in the school building on Walker Street. He said students could have faced even more severe effects if they had not been moved outside quickly.

Polk County Sheriff Chris Abril said he was passing by the building around the time of the incident and joined others&bsp; helping to move victims outside. He says three students who were passed out were put on the front lawn of the building, and others still inside also began to pass out or become dizzy and confused.

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Polk emergency workers, many of whom just completed a disaster training drill last Thursday, quickly put their disaster response skills to work. Firefighters, emergency workers, law enforcement personnel and county employees filled the area between the sheriff&squo;s office and the early college. Ward and Walker streets were blocked off as workers rushed to get students transported to the hospital. Some of the students were taken to the front of the Polk County Sheriff&squo;s Office where they were put on gurneys before being placed in ambulances.

Columbus Fire Chief Geoff Tennant, who is also chairman of the Polk County Board of Education, led the response at the early college. He said the cause of the high levels of carbon monoxide was unknown Monday morning. But he said officials suspected it was a problem with the heating system, possibly a blocked chimney, which did not allow carbon monoxide gas to escape.

Polk County Schools Supt. Bill Miller and other school officials immediately went to the scene and began notifying parents. Personnel director Patterson said he and other school officials also went to the hospital where hospital officials later reported that everyone was in good condition. He says students were expected to remain there for further blood tests before being released to their parents.

Patterson says the carbon monoxide apparently began building up after the heating system at the early college was turned on at about 8:30 a.m. on Monday. It was the first time it had been turned on this school year, he says.

This is the first year that the early college was located in the building on Walker Street, which most recently housed county departments and previously was home to the Polk County Library. The Polk County Virtual Early College was created last year to provide an alternative for students interested in more online learning and the opportunity to gain more college credit at no cost. The college, which includes freshman and sophomores this year, spent its first year in a classroom at the high school.

Polk County government completed renovation work on the building to make it suitable for the early college. Officials say the heating system is the same as what was used there previously, and they are not sure why it may have experienced problems on Monday.

Patterson said the building did not have carbon monoxide detectors, and neither do other Polk school buildings. He said he expects detectors will be added, and officials will make sure the heating system is functioning properly before the early college reopens. Patterson said he expected it would be closed today.