WESTERLY — School officials ordered the evacuation of Babcock Hall on the Westerly High School campus for several hours on Tuesday “in an abundance of caution” following a small mercury spill in a closed area of the building.
A custodian was cleaning in the old cafeteria, now used for storage in the Highland Avenue facility, when some mercury spilled from a thermometer. Superintendent Roy M. Seitsinger Jr. said the instrument was in an incorrectly labeled fireproof box.
Seitsinger said calls were immediately made to the Rhode Island departments of health and environmental management in accordance with safety protocol. The agencies provided immediate information and sent representatives to the school — John Leo, DEM’s head of hazardous materials incidents, and Dr. Robert Vanderslice of the state Department of Health.
Students, faculty, staff members and children in day care were evacuated at about 11 a.m., said Seitsinger, while the custodian was taken to the hospital by Westerly Ambulance personnel as a “precaution,” he said. The custodian, who indicated to school and rescue personnel that she had no symptoms of distress, was advised to go to the hospital for observation. She was later released and returned to work.
Seitsinger said DEM personnel found a small amount of “mercury vapor” only in the unoccupied area of the building where the thermometer contents spilled. That area was cleared. He said all other areas of the school were checked with no indication of any hazardous conditions.
The school was closed until 1 p.m., with some students going to the Ward building for the remainder of the day. Day care providers and teachers had children outside and away from the building and kept them busy with activities until they were allowed to re-enter.
Seitsinger said the Westerly Fire Department was not notified because DEM had told school officials that this was not a situation in which the authorities were worried about a flammable product. In retrospect, the superintendent said he believes Fire Chief John Mackay, or any other fire district chief, should be notified of similar incidents in the future. Mackay said Wednesday that he had not heard about the incident until long after its conclusion and believed he should have been notified.
Seitsinger said he initiated a schoolwide alert at about 2:30 p.m. as a “normal procedure” to announce to the faculty, staff and students what had occurred in the previous hours. Later in the evening, at around the time he estmated that most families would be having dinner, a call was made to all parents through the school district’s alert system.
Some parents complained that they were not told of the situation earlier in the day. One mother, expressing her “outrage” on Facebook, said she did not receive the call alerting parents to a “hazardous chemical spill” until 7:10 p.m. One parent, Terri Davidson, said she believed that a notification should have gone out earlier.
Police Chief Edward St. Clair said his department “didn’t have any involvement” with the incident. He said the school resource officer was on duty as part of his regular duties.
Seitsinger said he planned to hold a meeting of those involved to discuss how the incident was handled, what protocols were successful and what could be done differently in the future.