Five people – including two minors – were hospitalized after an apparent malfunction released an unknown toxic gas into the indoor pool area at Evolutions Fitness and Wellness Center in Tulare on Tuesday, June 27. Other victims included two adult women and a man.
Chief Michael Ott of the Tulare Fire Department (TFD) said firefighters responded to a report of injuries related to a chemical hazard at the facility. Ott confirmed five people who were in the pool area at the time were transported for emergency treatment by ambulance. He was unable to comment on the nature of the injuries, citing patient confidentiality. Tulare police were also on site.
Ott, who arrived at the scene after the initial response, said the TFD did not investigate the cause of the possible leak.
“We just mitigate it, and it’s incumbent on the maintenance personnel to work out what went wrong,” he said.
TFD cleared the incident by 1:18 p.m. Evolutions, located at 1425 E. Prosperity Ave., is owned by the Tulare Local Health Care District (TLHCD).
A social media post from management at the gym called the incident “an apparent malfunction of a sensor that controls the automatic flow of chemicals to our swimming pool.”
The entire facility was evacuated during the incident.
‘Very Serious Incident’
Paul Olson, whose 17-year-old daughter was one of those injured on June 27, described his version of what happened. Olson’s daughter, a competitive swimmer who recently received a full athletic scholarship to University of Nevada, Las Vegas, was in the pool at the time.
“It was a very serious incident,” Olson said. “The entire gym had to be evacuated within eight minutes.”
Those in the pool area noticed something was wrong, he said, when they began having problems breathing.
“She (Olson’s daughter) started coughing. Her partner started coughing,” Olson said. “They couldn’t breathe.”
His daughter had to be helped out of the water and the pool area by another of the victims, a man Olson described as a well-placed good Samaritan who acted fast. The man helped Olson’s daughter into the lobby area of the gym, where she collapsed before being transported for emergency treatment.
Olson said he and others familiar with the situation believe the toxin released was muriatic acid gas. Muriatic acid, a dilution of hydrochloric acid, is used as a cleaner and to maintain neutral pH in swimming pools. The website poolresearch.com recommends waiting two to three hours to swim after adding muriatic acid to a swimming pool in order to avoid burns.
Injured Still Recovering
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), muriatic acid and other hydrogen chloride-derived substances are highly toxic. The gas is “intensely” irritating to the breathing pathway. Exposure to high concentrations can cause swelling of the throat, spasms and eventually death by suffocation if untreated. Exposure can also result in reactive airway dysfunction syndrome (RADS), a chemically- or irritant-induced type of asthma.
Olson said his daughter experienced the more serious symptoms of exposure.
“She was put on oxygen. She was given steroids,” he said. “She couldn’t breathe. They gave her a steroid shot, I guess her throat was swollen.”
More than a week later, Olson’s daughter still hasn’t fully recovered her breath.
“This was 10 days ago, and she’s still got tenderness in her throat,” he said.
The concerned father is not only worried about his daughter’s immediate wellbeing, but also about the possible long-term effects of exposure to the mystery gas. This is especially true since her performance in the pool is making her college education possible.
“Is she going to be able to compete at the same level?” he said. “Will she ever be the same?”
Olson’s daughter is receiving respiratory therapy for her injuries. She has recovered about 90% of her pre-exposure lung capacity, her father said.
“She’s a very, very strong person,” Olson said. “She’s back in the pool today. She says she’s going to make a full recovery.”
Victim’s Father Alleges Cover-Up
Relatives of those injured by the gas release are upset by the response from TLHCD, which owns the gym. Joan Ruch, who said via social media that her nephew was one of the injured, was upset the public wasn’t immediately informed of the injuries when the leak was announced online.
Others praised the gym staff for its calm handling of the crisis.
Olson, however, was upset the incident wasn’t given more attention by the TLHCD board.
“I grew extremely angry listening to the board meeting last night,” he wrote. “The board was not told about the severity of the accident and was very cavalier about the incident during the board meeting.”
Kevin Northcraft, president of the TLHCD board of directors, issued a statement about the incident:
“At the last board meeting, the board expressed much concern about the incident at the pool. (Board Secretary) Xavier (Avila) and I have asked for an independent investigation, and I believe at least two are underway. Our concern is threefold: 1. To express sympathy and support for those impacted; 2. To find out exactly how it happened; 3. To take steps to make sure it never happens again.”
Olson, however, said the TLHCD has yet to tell the victims what they were exposed to. That ignorance is hampering his daughter’s treatment and recovery, he said.
“When we seek follow-up treatment, the doctors need to know exactly what she’s been exposed to,” he said. “You can’t tell me it takes nine days to figure out what happened down there.”
Whatever the unknown contaminant was, its effects were long-lasting, even sickening hospital personnel who treated the injured.
“The nurses who were assisting with rinsing were coughing because of the acid,” Olson said. “If that’s what it was. We don’t know. We’re very worried.”
TLHCD Being Thorough
TLHCD CEO Randy Dodd said, “We’ve just about finished up collecting information, and we’ll share it then. We didn’t want to release information until we get the final report from the experts.”
He was unwilling to comment on what the investigation has so far revealed. The main focus is on equipment and a possible malfunction.
“It is a circumstance that can happen at pools. We believe it’s an incident and not systemic in terms of neglect,” he said. “Pools are tricky, that’s the bottom line.”
The delay, Dodd said, has been caused by caution on the part of the district.
“We’re doing everything we can to have a safe pool,” he said. “That’s why we’re taking nine days.”
Olson believes there is another reason for the slow response.
“The attorney for the distinct told everyone not to talk,” he said.
Olson specifically praised the response of Avila to the incident. Avila, he said, claimed the TLHCD had not been fully informed about the severity of the injuries at Evolutions.
Olson, whose wife works at Evolutions, said the pool at the gym has suffered from neglect.
“They have been deferring maintenance on the pool for years,” he said. “I’m starting to wonder why they even opened that pool.”
Dodd said the district will provide more information about the incident next week, hopefully including the complete independent investigation reports.