Swimmers hospitalized after being overcome by chemical fumes

It was a 90-degree afternoon, and the Garfield Park pool was packed.

David Yates, 13, had just zipped down a slide and splashed into the water when he noticed a bad taste in his mouth — like bleach.

English: A picture of the swimming pool Sundla...

English: A picture of the swimming pool Sundlaug Stykkishólms and the pool’s water slide. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At the same time — across a pool that features shallow wading areas, two large water slides and a children’s playhouse — others were making the same discovery.

Mayhem ensued.

Jamie Rahmany, in the baby pool with her son, noticed kids coughing around her. Patricia Tanner, a mother of three sitting just out of the pool, saw children vomiting. And Shari Patton, a mother with two children at the pool, smelled a sharp odor that was likened to ammonia, or chlorine.

“The lifeguard was running around yelling at everybody: ‘Get out of the pool! Get out of the pool!’?” she said. “I didn’t know what was going on.”

Patton yanked her kids out of the water and rushed them to a shower room for a rinse. Around her, swimmers were leaving the pool and grabbing shirts, towels, whatever they could to cover their faces and shield them from the smell. Pool staff quickly began giving the children water, with kids drinking from the same cups.

The source of the chaos was what officials described as a toxically out-of-balance mixture of pool chemicals that were pumped into the water around 2 p.m. Thursday. The solution sickened scores and sent more than 80 people — most of them children — to four local hospitals. Most were treated and released within a couple of hours. Some were being kept Thursday evening for observation, but there was no indication that anyone had been seriously harmed.

The emergency was serious enough that first responders initially referred to the scene as one of “mass casualties.” They set up a triage area. In addition to several ambulances, two IndyGo buses were brought in to take the victims to the hospitals. For a time, the city’s emergency room capacity was strained by the numbers. Mayor Greg Ballard stopped what he was doing to visit the scene on the city’s Southside.

Exactly how the noxious mixture came about wasn’t clear, according to Lt. Derrick Sayles of the Indianapolis Fire Department, because the pool’s operator was among those being treated.

Sayles said the source seemed to be the improper use of a pool cleaning chemical called ACID Magic. Sayles said the machine that pumps chemicals into the pool had been shut down and restarted. As it was restarted, the combination of ACID Magic, sodium and water flowing into the pool was wrong.

Dr. James Mowry, director of the Indiana Poison Control Center at IU Health Methodist Hospital, which handled 45 of the Garfield pool patients, described the resulting mixture as a chlorine gas. In this case, the mixture was just strong enough to irritate eyes and lungs and induce vomiting. But in super-high concentrations — as with chemical weapons used during World War I — the gas can be lethal.

How the misapplication of chemicals occurred will be investigated, Sayles said. The mayor said other city pools will be checked to ensure they aren’t susceptible to similar problems. The Indianapolis Star requested health inspection and maintenance reports on the Garfield Park pool from county and city officials Thursday but was told those records were not immediately unavailable.

Garfield Park’s pool was closed for the rest of the day. It’s not known when it will reopen.

Jen Pittman, the city’s marketing director, said the city will not provide refunds to pool visitors but will provide them with a complimentary pass for another day, once it does reopen.

David Yates, the 13-year-old who tasted the chemical after surfacing from his splash off the water slide, turned down care from emergency officials, even at the urging of his baby sitter. He left the Garfield Park pool with a reddened face, puffy eyes and irritation in his chest.

When his mother, Heather Lightle, arrived home a couple of hours later, she found David with his eyes matted shut and a green substance oozing from the corners.

She took him to the emergency room immediately. He was treated and released a few hours later.

Lightle was angry that emergency responders at the scene didn’t force him to go to the emergency room. And she was angered by what happened with the chemicals at the pool.

“I think it’s ridiculous,” she said. “I don’t see any reason why it happened. I don’t understand how it happened. That’s just crazy.”

Star reporters Bill McCleery and Jill Disis contributed to this report. Call Star reporter Robert King at (317) 444-6089. Follow him on Twitter at @Rbtking.

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