NEWS

5 children treated after aerosol irritant sprayed on their school bus

Matt Buedel and Leslie Fark

Emergency medical staff at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center braced for an onslaught of sick Metamora Grade School students Thursday morning after what was initially described as a “chemical release” aboard a bus.

But what at first appeared to be a large-scale contamination of up to 80 elementary school children turned out to be a common aerosol irritant that resulted more in a scare than real harm.

Five children — four boys, ages 7, 9 and two 13-year-olds, and an 8-year-old girl — were taken to the hospital after the 8:30 a.m. incident. They all were released by 11 a.m.

When the students arrived at the hospital, they were greeted by a large decontamination tent and medical staff dressed in biohazard jumpsuits. The hospital had rolled out the operation in case patients needed to be decontaminated before entering the emergency room.

“We activated our disaster plan, which is an orange alert … any type of chemical exposure,” said Dr. George Hevesy, director of emergency medical services at St. Francis.

None of the students ultimately needed the equipment, he said.

Hevesy added that without the presence of an emergency physician, Dr. Paul Matthews, at the scene — a happenstance that provided an immediate analysis of the severity of symptoms and critical communication back to emergency room staff — a flood of students likely would have unnecessarily come to the hospital. Matthews couldn’t be reached for comment.

Authorities at the scene said that as the bus neared the school, 815 E. Chatham St., a boy sprayed computer keyboard cleaner, or compressed air, he brought from home inside the bus.

“Some of the kids on the school bus started complaining of breathing problems due the chemical sprayed on the bus,” Metamora Police Chief Mike Todd said.

Emergency personnel from several neighboring towns, including Washington, Germantown Hills, Washburn, East Peoria, Roanoke and Eureka, responded to the school to aid the students. Woodford County sheriff’s deputies secured the scene and quieted the nerves of uneasy neighbors and parents who drove to the school.

Metamora Junior High Principal Kathryn Marshall said all the students were evaluated by a medical team and cleared to return to class. Some of the students were taken out of school Thursday as a safety precaution by their parents.

Marshall wouldn’t say whether the student who sprayed the cleaner will be disciplined by the school.

“I cannot discuss that,” she said, adding the investigation is ongoing.

Classes at the kindergarten through eighth-grade school remained in session despite the throng of emergency personnel and vehicles outside in the parking lot. Few of those vehicles remained by 10 a.m.

“It’s a disruption to the day, but we’re running the day as smoothly as possible,” Marshall said, adding that all students will be sent home with a letter, informing parents of the incident. “Safety always is our first concern.”

Matt Buedel can be reached at mbuedel@pjstar.com. Leslie Fark can be reached at lfark@pjstar.com.