The Valdez Star - Serving Prince William Sound and Copper River Basin

By Lee Revis
Editor, Valdez Star 

Fuel odor prompted school evacuation Thursday

Emergency drills paying off for Valdez after recent emergencies


Tony Gorman photo

Hermon Hutchens Elementary School students wait to board an early bus home Thursday after classes were canceled when an unusual odor was detected coming from the building's boiler. The precautionary evacuation of the facility included middle school students.

School district officials jumped into action Thursday after a fuel odor was found to be coming from the boiler room at Hermon Hutchens Elementary School during regular school hours.

"We got some fuel smell in the building." said Dr. Lisa Stroh, district superintendent. "We just evacuated for precautionary reasons."

Students were released to their parents or were sent home on early buses that were called in for all students of the elementary school, including middle school students attending school at Hermon Hutchens during the construction of the new middle school.

"As most people know we have a new boiler system," at the elementary school Stroh said. "It was put in this summer. We're still trying to regulate that."

Around 12:30, problems were noted and a fuel smell detected Stroh said in an interview conducted by Tony Gorman, KCHU public radio news director.

"The boiler went down, when we went to restart it we got some fuel smell," Stroh said.

Classes were dismissed at 1:10 p.m.

"We've got an emergency preparedness plan which we put into motion," Stroh said. "We had an ambulance on standby just for precautionary reasons....As the superintendent, I err on the side of caution."

The fire department was on hand to use proper equipment to monitor air quality and an ambulance was on standby just in case it was needed. The school got a clean bill of health and students returned to class as usual Friday morning.

"Of course we never like these things to happen," Stroh said, noting she is glad to know that the district is prepared in the event of a more dangerous situation.

At the end of the day Friday, city public information officer Holly Wolgamott issued a statement saying "At 5:00 p.m. the Valdez Fire Department tested the air quality at the elementary school and found the air to be within normal limits. Fire Department personnel did not feel that there were any safety or health concerns that would prevent the school from operating. Valdez City Schools have therefore deemed it safe for normal operations and will resume regular operating hours on Friday morning."

Thursday's incident was not the first emergency situation to arise this winter.

A week ago Friday, the school's gym was used as a triage center to examine students from Kenai and Skyview High Schools that were passengers in a bus involved in a collision with a semi truck.

The school district had its hands full that day as well, as did numerous responding agencies in Valdez and the Copper Basin.

Tony Gorman photo

A worker checking on the Hermon Hutchens Elementary School boiler after an unusual odor prompted authorities to cancel afternoon classes Thursday.

While the bus driver was pinned in the accident that occurred around Mile 55 of the Richardson Highway and was later sent on a medical flight to Anchorage, along with one other casualty, most of the passengers received only minor injuries.

Providence Valdez Medical Center (PVMC) said it processed 28 patients through its door that day.

"This was the highest volume of patients ever received by Providence Valdez in a single event," the hospital said in a press release.

Valdez institutions, including the school district, city personnel and other entities regularly practice drill various scenarios from mass inoculations to full-scale disasters spanning several days. PVMC and its staff are regular participants, and also drill in-house.

Emergency preparedness drills are part of the ongoing training that Providence Valdez conducts on a regular basis," Barbara Bigelow, the hospital's administrator, said in a prepared statement.


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