'We were exhausted'
Hockey fans, players poisened in carbon monoxide incident at Jorgensen Event Center
Times Staff Writer
Originally published 2011-02-10
Gunnison fire and EMS personnel began assisting players, coaches and spectators who were inside the Jorgensen Event Center just before 2 p.m. Sunday.
photo by Matt Smith
The combined effects of a malfunctioning ventilation system and an overly-emitting ice re-surfacing machine are to blame for carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning of an untold number of hockey fans and players on Sunday at the Jorgensen Event Center in Gunnison.
Two individuals were transported to Denver Sunday and an estimated 130 are reported to have received some level of poisoning from the incident, which caught the attention of numerous national news agencies this week.
Gunnison Valley Hospital (GVH) officials reported that, in total, 61 people were treated for varying degrees of carbon monoxide poisoning at the local hospital. As of Tuesday, all had been released.
Among those receiving treatment were eight who were hospitalized in serious condition, including two youth girl hockey players -- both reported to be members of the Colorado Junior Eagles U-19 team -- who were flown to Denver for hyperbaric oxygen chamber treatment.
The victims included adults, teens and children.
City Manager Ken Coleman reported Tuesday that 24 players who had left to return home to Craig prior to emergency crews arriving were treated later Sunday at a hospital there; and three others received care at St. Mary's in Grand Junction.
"From what I've heard, everyone is doing well after this incident," said Coleman. "That was our major concern throughout. Secondarily, ... how are we going to prevent this from occurring again?"
Forty other victims were released at the scene after receiving treatment and it was determined that they were not in need of additional care, said Bryan Hess, who heads Gunnison's EMS.
Emergency crews -- including EMS from both ends of the valley, police, sheriff's deputies, state patrol, the Gunnison Fire Department and others -- responded to the scene.
Three ambulances from Gunnison and two from Crested Butte, as well as a school bus, were used to transport victims to GVH, said Hess. A fourth Gunnison ambulance transported the two youth hockey players to the airport, where they were flown to Presbyterian/St. Luke's Medical Center in Denver. The county's Mass Casualty Incident trailer was also utilized to treat patients at the scene.
"Fortunately, nothing was very life threatening," Hess said.
The Gunnison Fire Department reported a CO level within the event center of 150 parts per million (ppm) near a team bench about five minutes after doors were opened and the building was evacuated. Normal CO levels in the air are about .2 ppm.
The highest "carboxyhemoglobin" level -- a measurement of CO in the blood -- found among victims at the scene was 42 percent, said Hess. "We had several people in the high 30s as well," he said, adding that the normal physiological level is between 0 and 4 percent, and that "30 to 60 is the danger area."
Above 60 percent can cause coma or death, said Hess. "Smaller bodies take less to become poisoned."
There were several youth hockey games played in the indoor ice facility over the weekend, including match-ups involving local U-19 and U-14 girls teams and the Blades midgets.
Coleman reported that the incident was caused by two unrelated, but potentially catastrophic when combined, mechanical failures within the 3-year-old facility. It was discovered that a motor that is part of the building's ventilation system was not working, and therefore not allowing fresh air to enter the building.
Additionally, the rink's gas-powered Zamboni ice-resurfacing machine -- which had been serviced last Thursday -- was found to be emitting abnormally high levels of CO through its exhaust.
"It is not clear when the motor failed on the outside air intake, but if the emissions were corrected under normal operation of that four-cylinder engine, the Zamboni would not put out significant CO loads to cause the kind of problem we experienced," said Coleman.
City engineer Terry Zerger said the faulty ventilation motor is not covered by warranty, but city staff has asked that a system be installed to notify when the device is not working.
City staff assured that both problems are being corrected, and precautions implemented so that a similar incident does not occur again.
There was not a carbon monoxide detector in the building, according to city officials. While residential buildings are required to have such devices, according to Colorado law, commercial buildings are not.
However, since Sunday, numerous battery-powered sensors have been implemented on a temporary basis in the building, until a permanent system is expected to be wired into the building's fire alarm system, said Coleman.
Flu-like symptoms were recognized among numerous players by mid-afternoon Sunday, and a call to 911 reported that 12 people were sick, said Hess. One U-19 player is reported to have lost consciousness.
Crews were dispatched at 1:46 p.m. and were on scene within one minute, said Hess.
While some reports have indicated that attendees raised concern about a strong smell of exhaust in the building earlier in the day, that's not something Coleman said he has substantiated.
"It's all hearsay at this point," he said. "I've asked (that) we get a report from the people who were there. I haven't seen that yet."
The first game of the day occurred at 8 a.m. and the Zamboni was used throughout the morning and early afternoon.
Coleman said that facility manager John Messner was out of town on Sunday. Although other city employees do work concessions and drive the Zamboni, it's not typical that someone else is designated in charge in the manager's absence, said Coleman.
Coleman said the city has been in contact with its insurance carrier, Travelers Insurance.
"Our feeling is we have already put people through enough and we should be helping them resolve any problems they're having -- visiting a hospital or any expenses they may have incurred because of the failure of our systems," he told City Council Tuesday. "We do feel that Travelers has an obligation to help us work through this. I can't promise you what the end result will be."
City leaders have been bombarded with inquiries from throughout the country following the incident.
"I was working two phones yesterday at the same time for most of the morning," said Gunnison Fire Marshal Dennis Spritzer, who acted as the public information officer. "I got calls from all of the major networks -- including Reuters, The Today Show, Good Morning America, all the big ones."
The indoor rink has remained closed until city officials feel completely comfortable in reopening the widely popular facility. That means games scheduled through this weekend will be held on the outdoor rink.
"Until we have all the systems operational with additional precautions in place for the indoor rink, it will be closed," said Messner.
(Will Shoemaker can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or firstname.lastname@example.org)