April 10, 2013
A chemical incident in a student lab at Colorado College sent 13 people to the hospital Wednesday, including two who had to be pulled out of the building with significant respiratory issues, officials said.
Colorado Springs firefighters and hazmat crews rushed to Olin Hall on North Nevada Avenue after 3 p.m. following reports of a hazardous materials exposure.
When firefighters arrived, they rescued two people from different locations in the building, fire department spokeswoman Sunny Smaldino said.
“That was their first priority,” she said. “When they arrived here, they heard people were down. They went in, and they made sure that everybody was out of the building.”
The group was exposed to titanium tetrachloride, which the Environmental Protection Agency says is “highly irritating to the skin, eyes and mucous membranes in humans.”
Short-term exposure “may result in surface skin burns and marked congestion and constriction of various sections of the upper respiratory tract in humans. Acute exposure may also damage the eyes,” according to the EPA.
All 13 people who were exposed to the chemical were decontaminated before they were sent to the hospital “for further evaluation,” Smaldino said.
By about 6:45 p.m., the fire department said 12 of the patients were expected to be released from the hospital, and only one remained in serious condition.
Senior Nick Koch told The Catalyst, the student newspaper at Colorado College, that students in his chemistry class were drilling into a pressurized container to obtain the substance when the incident occurred.
Students Talisa Sobieski and Sara Robbins said they were also in the basement but in their human anatomy class working on cadavers when the fire alarm went off. Initially, they thought it was a drill but then saw smoke.
“We’re sort of towards the middle part of the hallway, and you couldn’t see the end of the hallway very well,” Robbins said. “You can usually see a shower room and the bathrooms and a water fountain, which you couldn’t see any more, so we all evacuated pretty quickly.”
Robbins and Sobieski said the school performs regular fire drills, which they said paid off.
“I think if we hadn’t done a fire drill and this was going on, there would have been so much more panic going on,” Robbins said. “But everyone knows the sound of the fire alarms. We’re familiar with it, so we knew when it was going off, it was like, ‘OK, we need to get out.’”
Sobieski commended the school for its swift response.
“I really think the school responded phenomenally to it,” she said. “They were here before the fire trucks and before the ambulances, and they were in there making sure students were out.”
Both women expressed concern for their classmates -- as well as their cadavers.
"What’s more important is that the alive humans are safe," Robbins said.
The incident happened as the school tested its emergency mass notification system. That confused some students, who thought the second alarm was part of the drill, according to The Catalyst.
“This is not a drill,” the system warned students when the exposure occurred.
The incident forced the closure of Nevada Avenue between Uintah and Cache La Poudre streets for several hours. Several fire trucks and ambulances also responded to the scene.
“We don’t take any of this lightly,” Smaldino said.