WILLIAMS LAKE, B.C. — It was supposed to be a busy day at the Cariboo Memorial Recreation Complex where dozens of kids were getting ready for a swim meet Sunday morning when suddenly they started smelling “something weird.”
The fumes, caused by what authorities called “a chlorine incident”, forced the evacuation of the complex in Williams Lake, B.C., and sent 70 people to hospital, the majority of them children.
“People just said ’you’ve got to get out,” said Abbi Taylor, a 17-year-old swim coach who was there.
She said the kids, who were mostly under the age of 12, were in the pool at the time, warming up for the meet. A hockey game was also going on in the complex.
Taylor said a “wall of people” began running towards the door after the alert was given.
The children, many still wearing wet bathing suits, were ushered to the adjacent ice arena before the whole building was evacuated and ambulances arrived.
“It was pretty scary seeing like eight-year-olds with oxygen masks on and stuff,” Taylor said. “It was scary.”
So used is Taylor to the smell of chlorine that she at first didn’t think the chemical was the problem.
“But then it started to smell a lot, and a lot and a lot. And I was like, ’It kind of smelled weird.’ But I just didn’t really think too much about it.”
Meantime, pool staff trying to solve the problem were coughing and lifeguards were trying to keep people calm, she said.
Allison Ruault, health-services administrator at Cariboo Memorial Hospital, said some patients arrived by ambulance and some by private vehicle.
She said 45 children and 25 adults were treated. Most of the have been released, but two people, an adult from Williams Lake and a child, have been admitted for the night, Ruault said.
Angela Swyers said the child was her son, eight-year-old Billy Swyers.
“He’s showing signs in his lungs that the doctors aren’t happy with,” she said. “So just as a precautionary, they are keeping him overnight, giving him some antibiotics, and making sure he’s OK before they send him home.”
Swyers said she and Billy were sitting on the bleachers when she began to smell fumes in the air and everybody ran out of the pool.
Many of the children were coughing heavily, she added.
At the hospital, Billy was placed on a ventilator and given medication, she said, noting doctors also performed blood work and an X-ray.
“I just want to make sure he’s better,” said Angela. “So we’ll do whatever we can to get him healthy and then go home.”
Investigators don’t know what caused “the chlorine incident”, but city spokesman Ken MacInnis said the pool uses chlorine gas, not liquid chlorine, and dispenses it by computer.
Chlorine is used to sanitize pool water, but in high concentrations, particularly once it’s airborne, the gas can turn toxic. Some of the symptoms include a burning sensation in the eyes and mouth and difficulty with breathing.
Ruault said the day proved to be busy for the hospital, which is usually staffed by two nurses and a doctor on a Sunday.
“Typically in a day, in a 24 hour period, we would see 50 to 60 people,” she added, noting the hospital had to call in extra staff to deal with the influx of patients.
“In that roughly three-hour period we saw more than we would see in a 24-hour period.”