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Experiment leads to fire, evacuation

By Clay Wilson

The parking lot of Henry County High School was transformed into an emergency scene Friday n with the flashing lights of rescue vehicles, the whirring of news helicopters overhead and steady streams of students being evacuated.

The activity all stemmed from a chemistry experiment gone awry.

According to school and emergency officials, around 11 a.m. students in Katie Grossman's chemistry class were conducting an experiment involving methyl alcohol. The alcohol got too close to an open flame and exploded, causing a small fire.

Nine students suffered minor injuries, including burns and cuts from beakers that broke in the explosion. School system Coordinator of Community Development Cindy Foster said the most serious injuries appeared to be second-degree burns.

All the students had been treated and released from Henry Medical Center, said hospital spokeswoman Jennifer Dougherty.

The remaining nine students in the class went through a decontamination process administered by Henry County rescue personnel. Capt. Sabrina Puckett, public information officer for the Henry County Fire Department, said the process involved removing the students' clothing, washing the students with soap and water, rinsing them twice and re-clothing them in a "splash suit."

Methyl alcohol, also known as methanol or wood alcohol, is a common industrial chemical that school officials say can be used for a variety of experiments. According to information from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, symptoms of methanol poisoning include headaches, nausea, eye irritation and possible blindness.

All of the school's students were evacuated while emergency personnel from both Henry County and the City of McDonough cleared the building. Teachers and administrators led the students to the football stadium to wait.

"They just told us to leave the classroom," said 11th grader Matthew Floyd. "They said over the intercom something about a fire.

"Everybody seemed pretty calm," he said, "probably because they didn't know what was going on. I know I didn't."

Henry County High Principal Andy Giddens said school officials announced the evacuation and told students "it was not a drill." He commended the students' behavior throughout the entire incident.

"They understood that it was an emergency situation and that it required immediate (action), and they acted," he said.

Parent reaction was also swift. By noon, a steady stream of parents was pouring onto the school campus, directed by McDonough and Henry County Police who were blocking some parking lot entrances.

Many of the parents chose to take their children out of school for the day. Giddens estimated the number of students who checked out at about 400 of the school's 1,400 students.

"I was worried about him breathing the chemicals that might be in the school," said Judy Floyd, Matthew Floyd's mother. "Plus, I figured they might not let them back in."

Parents found out about the evacuation in a variety of ways. Andrea Kobel was bringing her ninth-grade son, Gabriel, lunch, as she does every day. Diane Ardila, who has three ninth-grade daughters, was on her way to the nearby McDonough Elementary School.

"I was going to my son's school and saw the commotion," she said. "I was a little upset."

By 1:30, the students were let back into the school, Giddens said. Those who desired it were fed a late lunch.

Giddens, who said he helped to put out the fire with an extinguisher, said Grossman's classroom suffered no significant damage. He said a decontamination team was scheduled to come in today, and he hoped students could return to the classroom Monday.

He also said the incident illustrated the effectiveness of the school's evacuation plan, which is revised each year.

"This is the first big-time emergency we've had in the five years I've been here," he said. "Our emergency response plan was tested to the max, and it proved to be effective."