Friday, July 14, 2006

One dead, one critical after carbon monoxide leak at Roanoke College

Pearisburg resident and retired pastor Walter J. Vierling died. A woman remains in critical condition.

CO leak poisons Roanoke College



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UPDATED: 5 p.m.

At a press briefing this afternoon, Roanoke College spokeswoman Teresa Gereaux identified the man who died in a campus dormitory after a carbon monoxide leak as Walter J. Vierling, 91, of Pearisburg. Vierling, who was staying in a collection of dorm halls known as Sections, died in a room in Yonce Hall, she said after the briefing.

Gereaux said the preliminary investigation was focusing on the potential faillure in the dormitory's gas hot water system. She also told reporters that she didn't believe there were carbon monoxide detectors in the dorm, known as Sections. This is made up of three main dorms - Wells Hall built in 1910, Yonce Hall constructed in 1913 and Fox Hall built in 1958.

Gereaux said a total of 62 people had been evaluated at Lewis-Gale Medical Center, with five still being evaluated. One of the five is in critical condition, Gereaux said.

As of about 4:40 p.m., all 49 patients who had been treated at Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital had been discharged, said spokesman Steve Munsey. Four patients remained at Lewis-Gale.

UPDATED: 3:38 p.m.

An elderly man has died, a woman is in critical condition and dozens of others are being treated after a carbon monoxide leak at Roanoke College in Salem, college spokeswoman Teresa Gereaux said.

Judy Norris, a 68-year-old woman from Middlebrook, said in a telephone interview from her hospital bed at Lewis-Gale Medical Center, that she woke up this morning feeling extremely weak. When she tried to wake up her roommate, she got no response. She used her roommate's cellphone to call 911 and lay on the floor until they arrived and took her out on a stretcher about 10 minutes later.

She's not sure what happened to her roommate.

"I don't know where she is now," Norris said. "I'd love to find out."

Norris expects to be at Lewis-Gale until Sunday.

The president of Roanoke College issued a statement today in a posting on the college's Web site.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with those who have been affected by this,” said Dr. Sabine O’Hara,. “We are doing everything possible to ensure the safety of all people on our campus and provide support for those who have been affected.”

O’Hara had been out of town, but is returning to campus today.

UPDATED: 2:08 p.m

As of 2 p.m. today, 62 people evacuated from a Roanoke College dormitory this morning after a carbon monoxide leak have been treated at Lewis-Gale Medical Center.

Most have been released but nine remain in the hospital, said Candi Carroll, director of emergency services at Lewis-Gale. Of the nine, five have been admitted, including one elderly woman in critical condition. Four are still being evaluated in the emergency room and are in fair condition.

UPDATED: 1:38 p.m.

Jordan Fitzgerald, a rising senior at Northside High School in Roanoke County who is participating in the Upward Bound program at Roanoke College this week, said she was awakened at 7 this morning by the sound of an alarm.

But Fitzgerald, 17, said didn’t think it was serious. Then she saw fire engines and ambulances and saw people being carried out on stretchers.

She said she and other Upward Bound students had headaches. Her friend, Stekeira Hayes, another rising senior at Northside, said she was dizzy and nauseous.

Both teens were taken to the Lewis-Gale emergency room, treated and released.

The Rev. Rosemary Backer of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Lynchburg, who is attending the Power in the Spirit conference at the college, said one congregation member felt ill and was treated and released.

She added that the group had just checked in Thursday for the three-day conference.

Backer and other church members left the Lewis-Gale emergency room in a Roanoke College van and returned to the campus for the conference.

UPDATED: 12:57 p.m.

Nancy May, spokeswoman for Lewis-Gale Medical Center, said the man either died at the college or en route to a hospital.

All told, 42 college guests and two emergency services personnel had been treated at Lewis-Gale as of about noon, May said. Of those, 13 have been released and the rest are being evaluated but appear to be in fair condition, she added.

Steve Munsey, a Carilion spokesman, said that as of 12:30 p.m., Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital had treated 49 people in its emergency room. Thirty have been released and two to five might be admitted.

The patients, whose ages ranged from 15 to 82, were checked for carbon monoxide in their blood and given oxygen through face masks, Munsey said.

None was in critical condition. Nine patients were treated and discharged, while 27 continued to receive treatment. Two to five patients might be admitted. Some had chest pain, trouble breathing and other carbon monoxide poisoning symptoms.

The ill were taken from the college either in vans or in ambulances, Gereaux said.

Nearly 140 adults and teen-agers were staying in Sections, a series of connected dormitories at the college which consists of Yonce, Wells and Fox halls, officials said. About 100 of the guests are with Power in the Spirit, a Lutheran group with members from across Virginia, and 37 female high school-aged teenagers from Southwest Virginia were there with the Upward Bound program, Gereaux said.

She added that the victims called campus police about 6:45 a.m. from an emergency phone and the police notified the Salem Fire Department.

Emergency medical personnel told victims that anyone with symptoms should go to the hospital to be checked for carbon monoxide poisoning, Gereaux said.

The victims complained of headaches, nausea, shakiness and dizziness, Gereaux said. When emergency personnel arrived, three people had serious symptoms— one had collapsed and another was in some kind of pain, officials said.

A triage area was set up near the dormitory, which is nicknamed "The Sections."

The source of the carbon monoxide leak had not been located as of 11 a.m. The building would remain closed until the leak was found.

Gereaux said she wasn’t aware of any such incidents ever happening before at the college.

Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless and tasteless gas than can cause sickness or death. Leaks in buildings typically come from furnaces, heaters and other gasoline-powered equipment.

About 100 adults in Power in the Spirit were attending a three-day conference at the college, focusing on Bible study, worship. music and Christian fellowship.

Sue Dugas, of the synod’s Salem office, said this year’s participants had come from Vinton, Salem and Roanoke, as well as other places in Virginia, and a handful had traveled from North Carolina and Pennsylvania. She declined to release any names, citing privacy concerns.

She said 242 people were enrolled in this year’s event and she estimated that about half of those were staying at Roanoke College, a Lutheran school. She said the synod has sponsored the conference for about 20 years.

"Most of the events that we sponsor we hold on Roanoke College," she said. "We hold the Power in the Spirit every year. It is a long-standing program."

The conference is typically attended by pastors, lay people and others interested in learning more about the Lutheran denomination.

The Virginia synod has 162 organized congregations, according to its Web site.

About noon today, members of the group held a private prayer meeting in Antrim Chapel on campus. The Upward Bound group of 37 girls and an unknown number of boys are staying at the college for the summer. Only the girls were in the dormitory where the carbon monoxide leaked.

Some people staying in the dormitory were evacuated in their night clothes and were allowed back into the building to retrieve clothes.

Gereaux described the scene as "very calm. Our [emergency response] systems worked well."

The college plans to hold another press briefing this afternoon.

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