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Unknown odor sickens St. Helens

St. Helens High School evacuated; intersection of Gable Road and Highway 30 affected
by: Darryl Swan, Columbia River Fire and Rescue Division Chief Brian Burright (left) and St. Helens High School Principal Nanette Hagen manage the scene at the high school, where students, teachers and administrators became ill    and an odor similar to natural gas was detected.

The St. Helens High School had to be evacuated Monday morning after several students and faculty members became ill from an unknown airborne substance that smelled similar to natural gas.

'When we noticed the smell, we evacuated the building,' said Adam Stewart, the finance director for the St. Helens School District.

Stewart and Superintendent Patricia Adams arrived at the high school shortly after receiving reports of the noxious smell.

There were no natural gas leaks discovered, and as of press time Tuesday there was no explanation for the odor. The students were ultimately sent home for the day.

Around half-a-dozen students were treated for symptoms that included burning eyes, nausea and dizziness.

Stewart said the smell was noticeable when he arrived at the school, though it faded soon afterward.

Nanette Hagen, the school principal, said she was grading senior projects in the western end of the high school when she began to feel nauseous and got a headache.

'I realized I smelled something,' Hagen said. 'The smell was very strong outside, as well.' Hagen said it took roughly an hour standing outside before her headache subsided.

November Hanson, an instructional aide, received medical attention after exhibiting symptoms, including burning eyes, believed to be related to an airborne release.

'I smelled something. I don't know if it was natural gas,' Hanson said, adding that the odor was similar to the smell of diesel.

Columbia River Fire and Rescue emergency personnel responded to the scene at 9:13 a.m.

'From what I'm told, there were many reports of the smell,' said Hyla Ridenour, a spokesperson for Columbia Rive Fire and Rescue.

Similar reports of feeling ill filtered in from neighboring businesses, including Safeway and US Bank. Emergency personnel were seen outside the US Bank building on the corner of Gable Road and Highway 30.

A St. Helens branch official with US Bank said shortly before 11 a.m. that bank employees were 'totally fine.'

Northwest Natural Gas workers ran gas-detection scanners through the high school, though no natural gas leaks were detected.

Students were first evacuated outside to the football field, and then were moved inside to the gymnasium. The doors were opened to allow air circulation through the gymnasium.

Several students argued to be released for the day, and were using cell phones to call their parents.