ODESSA - It might have looked like a disaster, and it certainly wasn't a drill, but officials at Ector County ISD and Medical Center Hospital both agree that executing all those practice emergency scenarios paid off in handling the mercury exposure situation at Hood Junior High on Tuesday.
"We were dealing with a lot of things, changing minute by minute, as it was going on. So it was a frantic situation at some points," ECISD Public Information Officer, Mike Adkins, said.
It all started on Tuesday when a student brought a plastic bottle filled with mercury inside, took it out and started playing with it in the school cafeteria. As a result of the contamination, 64 students and staff had to get checked out at the hospital.
Between the 700 students on campus, administrators, various emergency agencies, parents and media, Adkins said he believes the plan was carried out smoothly with everyone's needs being met.
"Those who'd been exposed, those who had not and we had to go and get them to their parents, those that needed the actual wash down at the school before they could get on the bus, both hospitals preparing to expect the large number of patients because 30 at a time is a pretty large number for them to receive," he said.
"I have 31 rooms in the ER and I received 39 the first batch then I had three or four walk in through my back door. So 31 rooms, most of 'em were full already with sick patients," Medical Center Hospital Unit Director, Manuel Guerrero, said.
So Guerrero converted the family consultation room to a holding area.
"Then we had placed a bunch of chairs in the hallway because in a disaster like this, you evaluate the patients, you know it's minor, they're walking, so if they can walk, let 'em walk," he said. "But with the amount of exposure, it was minor."
Plus the students had already showered and been decontaminated at the school before arriving. So when the physician stepped in, he looked for irritation and neurological symptoms. According to Guerrero, most patients were cleared within an hour and a half. Only a handful had to get mercury testing done, leaving some to think the reaction was a bit extreme.
But Adkins said they had to err on the side of caution especially since administrators aren't experts on hazardous materials.
"You don't know if they did something silly, like on a dare, tried to eat some of it or ingest some of it. There's too many variables to not take it seriously," he said. "When we know there's something like this, that's the first call we made, the fire department, the HAZMAT team, we need their direction."
"Not everyone is knowledgeable in different types of chemicals," Guerrero said. "So maybe not an over reaction, maybe they just care for their students and don't want them injured or hurt."
Afterwards officials brought in a cleanup crew from Dallas who spent the following day decontaminating the building and filtering the air. But officials from the company, Allied International, told NewsWest9 numerous times they could not disclose any specific information about the work they did.
Now, ECISD officials will concentrate on whether to discipline the student responsible.