BANNER ELK — No natural gas leaks were found in Avery Residence Hall, according to Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk, following an evacuation of the building on Aug. 30 that led to approximately 70 brief hospital stays.
“During the initial evacuation and subsequent sweeps, hardwired detectors in the building, and those worn by first responders were not triggered to elevated carbon monoxide levels,” an Aug. 31 statement by LMC said. “All devices were tested and found to be operational. Investigations continued throughout the day by county inspectors, utilities representatives, professional contractors and college facilities staff. No natural gas leaks were found, and this was eliminated as the possible cause.”
The cause of the incident had yet to be determined as of Aug. 31.
“Additional testing concluded that all equipment is normally functioning, with the release of carbon monoxide below regulatory limits,” the Aug. 31 LMC statement said. “Officials have not been able to replicate the conditions that led to the initial evacuation.”
The incident started after midnight on Aug. 30, when students started reported feeling unwell to staff.
“In an abundance of caution, we evacuated the building and emergency services was called,” Lees-McRae College’s Vice President for Planning and External Relations Blaine Hansen said on Aug. 30.
LMC evacuated the Avery Residence Hall to investigate after a call was placed to Banner Elk Volunteer Fire Department at 12:29 a.m. that morning, according to the Aug. 31 statement. Gas was turned off to the building soon after the incident was reported, Hansen said.
Hansen said that approximately 160 students live in Avery Residence Hall. According to LMC’s website, Avery Residence Hall houses female students from freshmen to seniors.
Students were transported to and received treatment at Cannon Memorial Hospital in Linville, Watauga Medical Center in Boone and Blue Ridge Regional Hospital in Spruce Pine.
“Approximately 70 students were later transported to area hospitals, where they were treated with symptoms commonly associated with exposure to carbon monoxide,” the Aug. 31 statement said. “By midday, all students were released by local medical personnel.”
The displaced students were housed elsewhere on campus.
“We are temporarily accommodating the residents in King-Shivell Lounge and Evans Auditorium, along with food service in Wily’s Bar and Grill,” LMC said in a social media post on Aug. 30. Small groups of students were escorted through the building to pick up personal effects that day as well.
Avery Residence Hall was re-opened on 8 p.m. on Aug. 31, the college stated, more than 37 hours later.
“The college is incredibly grateful for all emergency services and health care professionals who helped us and came together... to make sure that everyone is safe and well cared for,” Hansen said. “Lees-McRae is grateful for assistance from local emergency and health professionals with special thanks to the local EMS teams, Banner Elk Police Department, Banner Elk Volunteer Fire Department, Appalachian Regional Health System and Avery County Schools.”
During inspections, an unrelated code violation was found in a natural gas regulator by Avery County Director of Inspections and Planning Tommy Burleson, which was addressed prior to the building re-opening, the Aug. 31 LMC statement said.
“The Avery County Inspection department and the Avery County Fire Marshal feel that all appropriate measures have been taken, from testing of individual equipment units, to canvassing all residential sleeping areas, to ensuring that we addressed this separate concern,” Burleson said. “We have issued a certificate of compliance so the building can return to operation.”
LMC stated that nine new hardwired carbon monoxide detectors were installed in Avery Residence Hall and additional detectors were being installed in the sleeping rooms of all residence halls on campus.
“Our students obviously experienced health impacts related to this event,” LMC President Lee King said. “Despite not being able to pinpoint a direct source, the safety of our students is our top priority. The additional monitoring equipment being installed this weekend exceeds all North Carolina building codes and standards. Student safety at Lees-McRae is paramount.”
“I have nothing but the highest respect and appreciation for this entire community as we have worked through this incident,” King added. The initial emergency response, the support of regional medical services, and the combined efforts of professional contractors and local officials show the real strength of this community. I am also grateful for the resiliency, patience and character exhibited by our students and staff throughout this event.”