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Victim of CO leak tells how sickness spread through Utah school

Published November 21, 2013 6:57 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Connie Todachinnie sat against the wall of Montezuma Creek Elementary School on Monday morning and just tried to breathe.

Then she lay down on the ground. As concerned people gathered around her prone form, she could hear everything, but found herself unable to move or speak.

All she could do was twitch her fingers to let everyone know she could hear them.

Three days after being exposed to a heavy dose of carbon-monoxide poisoning at the grade school near the Colorado state line and being flown by medical helicopter to Salt Lake City for treatment, the 45-year-old instructional coach told her story publicly for the first time.

The leak sent more than 50 people to hospitals and clinics for treatment, including Todachinnie, who was in critical condition.

On Wednesday, she was released from LDS Hospital, feeling tired and achy and like she had done six hours of aerobics and 1,000 sit-ups. She said she hopes she won't suffer from any long-term effects from the exposure, which could include memory loss.

Todachinnie said the incident started about 8 a.m. Monday, when she remembers suffering a headache and dizziness. Soon after, a student came into the office complaining of pain in the arms and legs. Another child passed out. A lunch worker went home vomiting and another started complaining about headaches and dizziness. Then other children began vomiting.

"We were just trying to figure it out," she said, noting that everyone at the school was mystified as to what was occurring.

Soon, the principal ordered all the rooms ventilated, and then evacuated.

Todachinnie, who by this time was feeling terrible, said she opted to head to the kindergarten area, which was farther away, to see if she could help get children to safety.

Finding it under control, she fled out outdoors.

"I just sat against the brick wall and tried to breathe," she said.

Only later did she discover that she and nearly 50 others, including her sixth-grade son, had been exposed to a carbon-monoxide leak that occurred when a four-inch exhaust pipe connected to a water heater disconnected and vented the deadly gas into the building.

The school, attended by about 300 students and faculty, did not have a carbon-monoxide detectors. Utah does not require such units in schools, but some officials are asking if that needs to change.

"I don't think people should wait for legislation," Todachinnie said, noting she doesn't blame anyone for what happened and adding that the school handled everything as best it could.

She said when the incident occurred, she didn't even have a carbon-monoxide detector at her house, though that is going change as soon as she gets home.

"We're going to buy one," she said, "and it's not going to be a cheapy one from Wal-Mart."


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