Public Safety

Mystery odor briefly evacuates classes at Washington High in Cedar Rapids

(File photo) The Cedar Rapids Central Fire Station on Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2013. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
(File photo) The Cedar Rapids Central Fire Station on Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2013. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

A strange odor of unknown origin in a science classroom at Washington High School led to the sealing and evacuation of that room and nearby rooms on Thursday afternoon in Cedar Rapids.

According to a news release from the Cedar Rapids Fire Department, crews arrived at Washington High at 2:21 p.m. Thursday after the report of a “suspicious odor” in the area. Some students and a teacher were also complaining of scratchy throats, the release said.

The first fire crew on scene evacuated and isolated the classroom and rooms that shared a common hallway. The building’s ventilation system was also isolated, and the classroom in question was “enclosed with tape,” according to the release.

Paramedics assessed two students who did not require any further treatment.

The incident happened near the end of the school day, so students left campus and the school building as normal, according to the release. After the students left, firefighters entered the room wearing protective equipment, but there was no indication of any hazardous chemicals, according to the release.

Firefighters inspected the room again without protective equipment, and they determined it was safe.

Cedar Rapids Fire Captain Joel Miles said the firefighters were unable to locate the odor’s origin. After interviewing students and the teacher involved, Miles said some indicated there had been a smell remiscent of formalehyde, while another student said it may have been pepper spray. Miles said firefighters ruled out pepper spray because no one in the classroom exhibited symptoms of being exposed to pepper spray, which generally causes watery eyes and running noses.

Miles said the firefighters who inspected the room without gear were unable to detect a suspicious odor.

He said the a school staff member will check the room Friday after the building’s HVAC system has been up and operational. If there is an indication of a strange odor, firefighters can return once again.

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Miles praised the school officials for following the procedures that are a part of Washington’s emergency response planning.

In an e-mail to the Gazette, Cedar Rapids District spokeswoman Akwi Nji said that the procedures followed by Washington’s staff are the same as those implemented districtwide, and they “allowed staff to respond swiftly, with our students’ safety as our top priority.”

Nji said the district is satisfied after the testing that the space is safe.

“Testing was completed by HAZMAT and CRFD and results indicate there are no toxins in the air,” she said.

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