Durham County

YMCA response to spill questioned. Witnesses say ‘hacking, coughing’ kids put on buses

Dan Winn was doing his water aerobics routine around 1:50 p.m. Wednesday when a burning, metallic smell came up from the water at the Downtown Durham YMCA.

“I tried to keep going, but my throat started to kind of close up,” Winn, 62, said Thursday. “I have a mild case of asthma, and it started acting up.”

Winn got out of the pool just before 2 p.m. and a group of kids jumped in, he said. He got dressed, and on his way out, passed two people complaining after swimming in the pool. He told them he had the same problem.

As he left at around 2:15 p.m., Winn passed the kids outside the YMCA, the same kids who had jumped into the pool a few minutes earlier.

“And a lot of them were just hacking a lot,” he said.

A day after a chemical spill sent 40 children and three adults to the hospital, accounts differed on when kids started displaying symptoms and whether the YMCA responded appropriately.

Winn and a 911 caller both described children coughing before they were put on a bus and taken to another location. A YMCA of the Triangle spokesperson, however, said staff members didn’t notice any problems before they put the kids on the bus.

Durham County 911 calls indicate that a YMCA official initially called Wednesday afternoon and reported a 33-year-old lifeguard with asthma experiencing shortness of breath and having trouble breathing. The caller didn’t mention anything about a chemical smell in the building.

Another caller to 911 said he was concerned about a chlorine smell and children coughing and hacking. He said the pool had been closed, but not the building.

“They just took a bunch of kids from the Y and put them on buses while they were coughing and hacking. And the chlorine leak is so strong, the pool has been closed. There is a sign up, but it (the smell) is so strong downstairs that it is choking people,” said the caller, who described the kids as in “duress.” “I said s--- they don’t need to take these kids out of here. They need to get somebody over here to look at them all.”

The 911 dispatcher said there had been a previous call about someone having a breathing difficulty, but they didn’t have any idea about a hazardous material situation.

At 2:30 p.m., before the 911 calls, someone had called the Durham County Health Department and said that there was a strong chemical smell causing her and about 100 children to leave the pool, according to county records.

The Durham Fire Department was alerted to the call at 2:43 p.m., said Durham Fire Chief Daniel Curia, and it took them 3 minutes and 51 seconds to get to the scene.

Jennifer Nelson, associate vice president of communications for YMCA of the Triangle, said staffers who were putting the kids on the bus didn’t see any signs that were indicative of the situation.

“We take this seriously, and I am not disputing the person’s 911 call at all or their intent, but we have vetted this,” she said. “I think it was a very quick, unique situation.”

Children from different YMCA camps across Durham visit the downtown YMCA pool throughout the day, Nelson said. She didn’t know how many kids were in the pool at the time the issue was discovered, but they were based at a camp at Club Boulevard Elementary School, 400 W. Club Blvd.

The timeline

This is the timeline for what happened at the YMCA, according to Nelson:

▪  2:25 p.m. — A YMCA lifeguard went to the pool pump room, and noticed an odor. The lifeguard cleared the pool, which was closed.

▪  2:30 p.m. — The children got on the YMCA bus, and it went to Club Boulevard Elementary.

▪  2:37 p.m. — A YMCA staff member called 911 about the lifeguard’s breathing issue.

▪  2:52 p.m. — Someone from the camp at Club Boulevard called the Downtown YMCA to report that kids were coughing heavily and vomiting. EMS was sent to the school.

▪  2:55 p.m. — The fire department told officials they needed to evacuate the building.

Overnight, an external disaster recovery team cleaned up the chemical residue in the pump room, according to a statement from the YMCA of the Triangle.

The pool met all county and state requirements at its most recent inspection on Sept. 28, 2016, the statement stated.

“YMCA of the Triangle pools adhere to all county and state guidelines including chemical checks throughout the day,” the statement said. “During these checks, staff measure the chlorine and PH levels in the pools. Twice a day, certified pool operators perform a more extensive check of aquatics facilities,” including pump rooms.

On Thursday morning, a pool contractor began repairs. The Downtown Durham YMCA opened Thursday at noon, but the pool remains closed until an additional inspection is completed, according to a statement from YMCA of the Triangle.

On Thursday, YMCA of the Triangle started requiring internal checks of chemicals and pump rooms.

“We’re also asking aquatics staff to be more attentive to sounds, smells or anything out of the ordinary,” it states.

Officials said chemicals leaking from pipes in the pool’s pump system resulted in disinfecting chemical compound, sodium hypochlorite, spilling at the facility's indoor pool and forced the closure of the YMCA complex shortly after 3 p.m. Wednesday.

Sodium hypochlorite is a common disinfectant frequently used in the Downtown Y’s indoor swimming pool.

Two people were taken to area hospitals directly from the YMCA Wednesday. Forty children were also taken to hospitals. Six of the children were initially listed in “serious but non-life-threatening” condition Wednesday but improved after emergency room examination, Durham County officials said. Another adult was taken to the hospital several hours later.

All the victims have since been released from the hospitals.

Virginia Bridges: 919-829-8924, @virginiabridges