58 people taken to hospital after gas odor prompts evacuation of schools, businesses

MURRYSVILLE, Pa. — Fifty-eight people, including 39 students and one faculty member from Franklin Regional Middle School, were taken to a hospital after a strong gas odor forced the evacuation of their school and two nearby elementary schools.

Heritage Elementary, Newlonsburg Elementary, the middle school and the high school were evacuated shortly for some time when the smell of gas started to permeate the area. Ten people who work in and along the business corridor were also taken to a hospital.

Crews did not immediately know the source, but Barry Kukovich from People's Gas said they are attributing the smell of natural gas to a passing truck that was traveling along Route 22 venting heavy fumes. Crews tested the area and had found no trace of gas as of 12:50 p.m.

The Department of Environmental Protection also had not found the source of the smell, but crews will return on Thursday. Officials with the DEP also said they also think a passing truck caused the smell.

A Channel 11 crew at the scene said the smell of gas was strong along Route 22 from Blue Spruce to Cozy Inn. First responders said they were basically chasing a "pocket of natural gas." They have not ordered mass evacuations, but some businesses in Franklin Plaza were evacuated.

“We’re still trying to determine the cause (of) what made this all happen,” said Murrysville police chief Thomas Scefeld.

Heritage Elementary had been cleared by 11 a.m. and students were back inside shortly after. Students and staff from Newlonsburg Elementary and the middle school were moved to the high school, where they were still waiting for emergency crews to give the all-clear to return to their buildings as of 11:45 a.m.

"Earlier, we evacuated the buildings on this campus: the high school, Heritage Elementary, the middle school as well as Newlonsburg Elementary School," Superintendent Gennaro Piraino said.

Piraino said the students and one teacher who reported feeling sick were all in the middle school. School officials said school will be in session on Thursday.

The UPMC-Murrysville Primary Care Clinic was also temporarily evacuated. UPMC media relations manager Stephanie Stanley issued the following statement:

“As of 4pm, UPMC East evaluated 42 patients after exposure to a reported natural gas odor in the area: 34 students and 8 adults. The majority have been evaluated and released with the remaining expected to be discharged shortly. At this time, no one has experienced any serious health issues. The UPMC Partners in Health Murrysville location was temporarily evacuated today, but has been cleared for reopening.”

Officials said none of the patients suffered any serious, lasting issues. Mostly all of the patients were treated and released.

Like other students, middle-schooler Susie Putnam went to a hospital because she felt nauseous with a headache and was light-headed.

Jacob Sizemore, a sophomore student and an employee at Goodwill, had to evacuate twice: First at the high school where he's a student and then after he came to work at Franklin Plaza. He compared the smell to rotten eggs and sulfur.

A woman who lives across the street from the Franklin Regional campus said she could smell a faint scent of gas early Wednesday and she left her residence as a precaution.

The Redstone Assisted Living facility was not evacuated, but crews went through the building to determine if there is a gas odor inside. Using handheld gas meters, firefighters went floor by floor in the senior center after a staffer reported smelling natural gas. Ultimately, crews found nothing.

Firefighters were checking all reports of the strong odor of natural gas, and first responders treated each call seriously. Officials said they had about 30 calls into 911 just during the morning, mostly from businesses along Route 22, as they continued looking for the source of the odor.

Stay with Channel 11 News and WPXI.com for continuing coverage.