Columbus, NC – On Monday, Oct. 20, a carbon monoxide leak at Polk County Virtual Early College in Columbus sent 32 people to the hospital, including 27 students.

Most of the patients were released the same day, although two were kept overnight at St. Luke’s Hospital. Everyone is fine, school officials said Thursday afternoon.

Carbon monoxide, an odorless and colorless gas that can cause sudden illness and death, bled from a heater into the school building. The cause of the boiler’s malfunction is still under investigation, according the N.C. Department of Labor.

The Division of Occupational Safety and Health opened an investigation immediately after the incident, said Neal O’Briant, North Carolina Department of Labor.

Briant said it normally takes one to two months for investigators to find the cause of the accident. OSHA has up to six months before it cannot issue citations if evidence reveals negligence.

OSHA could cite Polk County Schools if the equipment does not fall under the division’s standards. Penalties could range from a few hundred dollars to more than $3,000. It could be several thousand dollars if OSHA finds that an employee deliberately ignored OSHA standards.

“In this case, that is most likely not the situation,” Briant said.

The school district bought and remodeled the interior of the former county library building last year. It opened to students in August. The building was inspected in July by the Department of Labor, which found it to be satisfactory. The Department of Labor and the school’s insurance company both approved the heaters as part of their inspections.

During the gas leak investigation, OSHA personnel will conduct interviews with maintenance workers, talk to manufacturers and look over schematics and manuals.

“We look at the type of equipment and figure out what went wrong,” Briant said.

The school’s principal, Barbara Fedock, said the building has had five carbon monoxide detectors installed since the incident.

She said all of the students have returned to school and have bonded more since the scare.

“We are a family; we are here for each other,” she said.

Fedock said classes are back to normal and everyone is working hard. She is grateful that no one was seriously hurt and hopes the incident will prevent other similar accidents in the community.

The heater has not been used with students in the building since the incident occurred.

“We have not needed to run it,” the principal said.