DUTCHTOWN — Twenty-eight Dutchtown High School students complaining of nausea, dizziness and headaches were taken to the hospital Thursday and the school was evacuated for a time due to fumes from a leaky lawnmower gas tank, Ascension school officials said.
The large capacity "zero turn" lawnmower with the balky gas tank was being used to cut grass next to an air-conditioning intake vent, sending gasoline fumes into one wing of the school campus off La. 73, school and sheriff's officials said.
School officials evacuated all students on campus as a precaution shortly after the then-unknown odor wafted into parts of the school about 8:20 a.m.
Jackie Tisdell, schools spokeswoman, said class had resumed after emergency authorities gave the all-clear mid-Thursday morning.
School officials and sheriff's deputies initially reported that a little more than a dozen students went to the hospital but warned the total could rise.
Emergency officials set up a triage area at school to assess ill students through much of the day and Tisdell said Thursday afternoon that final tally reached 28.
No school staff were sent to the hospital and it's not believed any of the students who complained of symptoms from the fumes lost consciousness, Tisdell said.
Some parents also removed their children from school for the day.
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With about 2,300 students, Dutchtown High has one of the largest enrollments of any public secondary school in the state, school officials said.
Sheriff Bobby Webre said one of his school resource officers stationed at Dutchtown High investigated the first reports of the odor, which he said had the smell of gasoline tinged with the smell of cut grass.
The lawnmower belongs to the school system's third party vendor that cuts the grass on the high school's expansive grounds. The contractor stopped work once authorities were alerted to the problem.
School officials also turned off the air-conditioning system while emergency officials investigated the smell with monitoring equipment, Webre said. They did not find carbon monoxide, a byproduct of an internal combustion engine that can be deadly in high-enough concentrations.
The gasoline fumes were limited primarily to the first floor of the campus' south wing and seemed to be strongest in a handful of classrooms closest to the outside air-conditioning intake where the gasoline vapors had entered the building, school and sheriff's officials said.
Tisdell couldn't say Thursday afternoon whether or not the students who ended up at the hospital were in what had appeared to be the worst affected classrooms.
She said school officials are investigating that question.
Large air handlers were used to remove the fumes from the affected building, Webre added.