An apparent prank on the last day of school spread a cloud of toxic chlorine gas through the main building of a Dana Point high school Wednesday, injuring 26 students and staff members and prompting the evacuation of the campus.
The gas is believed to have resulted from brake fluid mixed with chlorine tablets in a trash can at Dana Hills High School, Orange County Fire Department officials said. The incident occurred as students took their last final exams, 50 minutes before classes were scheduled to end for the summer.
Eleven students and five teachers and staff were taken to three hospitals suffering from upper respiratory problems. The two most seriously injured were female students, listed in fair condition, with the remainder in good condition.
"I guess this was someone's idea of a prank, but it's more serious than a prank," said Principal John Smart. "I'd like to think they did not intend harm," Smart said as students and teachers were given oxygen nearby.
Orange County firefighters turned the high school parking lot into an emergency treatment center and set up decontamination baths, stripping and scrubbing the injured behind curtains of yellow plastic held up by assistants, before loading them into ambulances.
Fire Department Battalion Chief Ron Blaul said chlorine gas is a respiratory irritant, which can kill if a substantial quantity is inhaled. In smaller amounts, it can cause chemical burning of the lungs, he said.
The gas cloud forced the evacuation of about half of the school's 2,290 students. The remainder were in portable classrooms not affected by the fumes.
The incident occurred shortly after 11 a.m. inside "the mall," a two-story rectangular building with school offices, theater and classrooms around the perimeter. The center of the building is an atrium-like enclosed area with a two-story ceiling with skylights. The chemicals were inside and next to a trash can near a stairwell by the theater, authorities said.
A campus proctor first noticed the smoke and alerted custodians, who removed the trash can from the building, authorities said. Fire officials said they were alerted to the fumes at 11:16 a.m. A spokesman for the school district said classes were evacuated at 11:45 a.m.
Students left final exams and belongings at their desks and filed outside.
Hazardous material team members, wearing head-to-toe protective gear and full respiratory equipment, went into the building about 1 p.m. to cart out the remaining hazardous material for analysis.