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Chlorine Gas Leak at School Pool Sends Four Swimmers to Hospital

January 15, 1994|FERNANDO ROMERO and KEVIN JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

ORANGE — About 3:30 p.m. Friday, the swimming pool alarm at Villa Park High School went off and coach Mike Giles, who had 18 of his students ready for swimming practice, sensed the danger.

Four of the students were already in the open-air pool, but there was no visible sign that anything was wrong.

However, "there was a strong smell of chlorine, so I evacuated the pool," Giles would say hours later.

Eleventh-grader Karen Hollinger, 16, one of the swimmers, was playing volleyball at the time in a sandy area next to the pool.

"I had no idea what was going on," she said. "One of my friends came out of the pool saying something was wrong. We started laughing, but when she started coughing and crying, we knew something was wrong."

A plume of chlorine fumes could be seen seeping out of the utility room where the pool's three chlorine cylinders are kept. Firefighters said the plug in one of them, a reserve tank, had melted down, releasing a toxic cloud that Giles said was about 10 feet wide and 2 feet high.

The four girls in the pool were overcome by the gas. They could hardly breathe, they told their friends.

Hollinger ran to the counseling office for help. Coach Giles, meanwhile, stayed behind at a shed near the utility room summoning paramedics and school authorities by phone.

The four girls, Sarah Frawley, Jennifer Dwinger, Rebekah Tenapel and Erin Schlotterbeck, were hospitalized. None of them, however, was in serious condition and at least two were released Friday night.

Fire Capt. Stephen Miller, part of the Orange County Hazardous Materials Response Team sent to the school, said the plug in a 150-pound cylinder of chlorine deteriorated and finally melted, allowing the chloride gas to escape.

The safety plug is actually meant to melt over the aperture, thus slowing down any leakage, but this time, said Fire Department spokeswoman Emmy Day, the plug just popped out.

Frawley, 16, was released at 6:15 p.m. from Chapman General Hospital. "I feel fine," she said. "My legs and my arms are trembling a little bit, but I'm OK."

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