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Torrance School Pupils, Faculty Felled by Fumes

Times Staff Writer

Powerful fumes that fire officials suspect came from the Mobil refinery in Torrance disrupted classes at a nearby school Wednesday, sending eight students and two teachers to the hospital with nausea, headaches, chest pains and dizziness.

All were released by the end of the day.

For the 600 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students and the staff at Philip Magruder Middle School, odors from the refinery a quarter mile away are a fact of life.

But Wednesday’s episode was different.

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“We have never had people collapse and be taken away by the Fire Department. It was the worst I have smelled in years,” said Principal Sidney Morrison.

Teacher Mercedes McMurray said, “We have had smells so bad that everyone had to stay inside, but nothing quite like this.”

“It was bad,” said Angela Ball, 11, a sixth grader. “It smelled like manure.”

Prompts Complaints

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The odor, which others described as smelling like rotten eggs, also hit the neighborhood surrounding the school, prompting eight telephone complaints to the South Coast Air Quality Management District. The AQMD sent two inspectors to the scene.

While fire officials said that the refinery is the probable source of the odors, the precise cause has yet to be determined.

The Fire Department’s hazardous materials team sampled the air for hydrogen sulfide, which produces a characteristic rotten-egg odor, and found no detectable readings at the school, along the refinery fence and in the refinery itself.

Torrance Fire Chief Scott Adams said that he nevertheless believes the refinery is the likely source of the fumes.

“We have a high likelihood that they came from the refinery. Based on the wind direction, it would be unlikely that it had originated anyplace else,” he said. “Whatever it was went away fast.”

Mobil officials said they found nothing unusual in the refinery, but that the company will pay for medical treatment required by students and staff at the school.

“It is likely the source of the problem, whether from Mobil or some other source, may never be identified,” Mobil spokesman Jim Carbonetti said. “However, we have notified the hospitals that bills for the exams of the students and faculty today will be paid directly by Mobil.”

The incident began about 10:20 a.m., interrupting what had begun as an otherwise normal day.

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Special education teacher Kathy Brooks was outside, walking between classes. Suddenly, winds coming from the direction of the refinery blew foul-smelling gases over the school, located at 4100 185th St.

“If you took a breath of air, you wanted to throw up immediately,” she said. “The teacher in the next room had chest pains. In my room, kids were gagging.”

Filter Out Odors

She said students tried to filter out the odors by cupping hands over their mouths and breathing through their shirts. Open windows were shut.

The symptoms appeared to strike unpredictably.

Eighth-grader James Morris was walking across campus with a classmate on his way to a fourth-period history class when he was overcome by a rotten-egg smell at about 11 a.m.

“I just took one breath of it and I got dizzy,” Morris said.

But his friend was not affected. “He kept asking if I was OK,” the student said.

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James’ dizziness continued, accompanied by chest pains. He went to the nurse’s office, where he lay down beside other stricken students and teachers. “I heard other kids coming in saying they didn’t feel well,” James said.

Sixth-grader Elisabeth Butcher and others in the school chorus went outdoors at 11:30 a.m. for physical education. “We were out playing on the grass and then the firemen came out there with loudspeakers yelling, ‘Get back inside, get back inside.’ ”

She returned to her classroom and told her teacher she felt ill.

Nurse’s Office Filled

By this time, the nurse’s office had filled up.

Torrance firefighters and paramedics, who arrived at the school shortly after 11 a.m., quickly converted the faculty lunchroom into a makeshift first aid center. Formica-top tables were covered with oxygen tanks, blood-pressure instruments and incident report forms. Hulking paramedics in jumpsuits knelt over students. Knots of students outside tried to catch a glimpse of their classmates.

At Torrance Memorial, where most of the students who required hospital treatment were taken, spokeswoman Laurie Lundberg said that doctors noted that not all of the students on the playground got sick and speculated that the ones who did had “some predisposition to being irritated by this particular gas,” possibly because they were already congested or suffering from colds or the flu.

Times staff writers Sheryl Stolberg and Adrianne Goodman contributed to this article.


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