By Alan Booth and Julie Rothey
Virginia Commonwealth University’s Cary St. Gym was evacuated this morning due to potentially hazardous fumes in the pool area around 10 a.m. Cary Street was closed between Harrison Street and Cherry Street.
Richmond Fire Department responded to the alarm, and gave the all-clear at 11:30 a.m. The gym and pool are both now open. The pool is safe to use.
The alarm was triggered by a VCU Rec Sports employee when a combination of residual chemicals and chlorine added to the system two days ago produced an unknown odor. Deputy Fire Marshal Earl Dyer confirmed that the chemicals never posed a risk to students using the pool.
VCU Senior Merin Duke was using the pool at the time of the alarm. Duke was ushered by lifeguards out of the gym. Later, once staff was alerted that the alarm was not a drill, students were moved across the street.
“All of my books for today, my wallet, my keys, and my phone, and my clothes are all in the gym,” Duke said while waiting for the building to reopen. Lifeguards provided her and the other students in bathing suits with robes.
Duke said evacuees were given frequent updates, and were told there were chemicals in the pool that could potentially cause an explosion. While rare, pool chemical explosions can occur when chemicals are mixed or added improperly.
The Richmond Fire Department’s HazMat team entered the building around 11:20 to assess the situation. The team used only their personal protective equipment and breathing apparatuses, instead of their full chemical entry suits.
Dyer stated that after testing, the HazMat team concluded the odor was caused by the interaction of chlorine added two days ago with residual chemicals in the filtration system’s pipes. The pool’s chemical balance is managed by head lifeguards using an array of pre-mixed chemicals to correct pH and chlorine levels.
The Fire Department gave the all-clear to re-enter the gym at 11:30. The gym was reopened by VCU just fifteen minutes later, though the pool itself remained closed until 12:30.
Despite the unexpected evacuation, Duke praised the VCU Rec Sports staff for being “very friendly, giving [students] frequent updates, as much information as they could,” and thought that “they did an A+ job.”