Mystery ailment at Father Judge High

"I’m baffled. We’ve had agen­cies look at dif­fer­ent things and they can’t find any­thing." — Fath­er Joseph Campel­lone, pres­id­ent of Fath­er Judge

Dozens of cheer­lead­ers left Fath­er Judge High School cry­ing on Sunday, but not be­cause their team lost the big game.

In­stead, Phil­adelphia’s health and fire de­part­ments sus­pect that the girls and many of their par­ents were ex­posed to a caustic sub­stance dur­ing the eight-hour cheer-a-thon that fea­tured about 30 youth clubs, most from the North­east. But as of Tues­day night, the mys­tery ir­rit­ant con­tin­ued to stu­pefy the ex­perts.

Some 200 people who had at­ten­ded the cheer­lead­ing event sought treat­ment at area hos­pit­als late Sunday and on Monday, most com­plain­ing of burn­ing or ir­rit­a­tion of the eyes and skin. Some had rap­id heart rates, too. No ser­i­ous in­jur­ies or overnight hos­pit­al stays were re­por­ted.

The school was closed to stu­dents, fac­ulty and staff on Monday and Tues­day as in­vest­ig­at­ors tried un­suc­cess­fully to de­term­ine the cause.

“I’m baffled. We’ve had agen­cies look at dif­fer­ent things and they can’t find any­thing,” said the Rev. Joseph Campel­lone, pres­id­ent of the all-boys school at Row­land and Solly av­en­ues.

“At this point, every test comes back neg­at­ive.”

Ac­cord­ing to Bat­talion Chief Charles Lep­re of the Phil­adelphia Fire De­part­ment, who also is deputy fire mar­shal, the air in­side the school — spe­cific­ally its gym­nas­i­um — was tested ex­tens­ively on Monday and twice more on Tues­day for volat­ile or­gan­ic com­pounds, or VOPs.

All test res­ults were neg­at­ive.

The gym uses a forced-fan vent­il­a­tion sys­tem, so there are no air ducts. The heat is “co-sponsored” with the school’s aud­it­or­i­um.

In ad­di­tion, in­vest­ig­at­ors used swabs to sample sur­faces in nu­mer­ous areas of the gym. Those swabs were sent to a chem­ist for lab ana­lys­is. The fire chief ex­pec­ted those test res­ults to ar­rive on Wed­nes­day.

School and Arch­diocese of Phil­adelphia of­fi­cials were to meet with in­vest­ig­at­ing agen­cies on Tues­day af­ter­noon to de­cide if the school would be open to fac­ulty and stu­dents on Wed­nes­day. An­oth­er can­cel­la­tion was ex­pec­ted.

The city’s De­part­ment of Health is the lead agency. The city’s Of­fice of Emer­gency Man­age­ment, Of­fice of Air Man­age­ment, the Phil­adelphia Po­lice De­part­ment and the fire de­part­ment’s Haz­ard­ous Ma­ter­i­als Unit are also in­volved, along with an en­vir­on­ment­al con­tract­or hired by the arch­diocese.

Co­in­cid­ent­ally, stu­dents had a sched­uled va­ca­tion day on Monday as teach­ers at­ten­ded an in-ser­vice day off-site, ac­cord­ing to Campel­lone, so the school didn’t have to scramble to tell people to stay away.

The fire de­part­ment was no­ti­fied of the haz­ard­ous-ma­ter­i­al situ­ation at 4:22 a.m. Monday after many of those who had at­ten­ded the cheer­lead­ing event showed up at sev­er­al area hos­pit­als com­plain­ing of sim­il­ar symp­toms.

In those early stages, folks went to Aria Health’s Tor­res­dale and Frank­ford cam­puses, along with Naz­areth Hos­pit­al and Jeanes Hos­pit­al, seek­ing treat­ment. By early af­ter­noon on Monday, about 200 cases had been re­por­ted, in­clud­ing about 160 at Aria-Tor­res­dale.

That fa­cil­ity set up a treat­ment room where staff treated pa­tients with eye-flush­ing and skin-cleans­ing solu­tions, and their vi­tal signs were checked.

Melanie Mc­Comb, a St. Hubert’s High School sopho­more and Fath­er Judge cheer­lead­er, was one of the vic­tims. About 40 Judge cheer­lead­ers worked the event, she said, and were in the gym­nas­i­um, hall­ways and park­ing lot. Mc­Comb helped clean up and left the school at about 6 on Sunday.

“I got in­to my mom’s car and my eyes were puffy and red, and my eyes were glassy,” Mc­Comb said. “I thought I got makeup in­to my eyes. I couldn’t open my eyes. It stung and made me tear up.”

When she got home, she washed her eyes with wa­ter. On Monday morn­ing, the burn­ing was gone but her eyes were dry. By then, word had spread about oth­er com­plaints, so she went to the emer­gency room at about noon.

St. Hubert’s stu­dents also were on va­ca­tion Monday.

“I’ve been talk­ing to oth­er girls (who cheer) at Judge,” she said. “They didn’t have eye prob­lems, but some of them have stom­ach aches and head­aches and sore throats.”

Rose Mc­Comb, Melanie’s mom, was at the com­pet­i­tion for about four hours Sunday morn­ing but de­veloped no symp­toms. Nobody de­tec­ted a haz­ard at the time, ac­cord­ing to her daugh­ter.

“There was no smell, no dis­col­or­a­tion (in the air). We had no idea something was wrong,” Melanie said.

An­oth­er mom told a re­port­er that her daugh­ter par­ti­cip­ated in the com­pet­i­tion and had no symp­toms, per­haps be­cause she showered im­me­di­ately after the event. But her mom waited un­til later to shower and de­veloped eye and fa­cial ir­rit­a­tions.

Phil­adelphia po­lice also re­spon­ded to the school be­fore dawn on Monday, said Chief In­spect­or Joe Sul­li­van of the home­land se­cur­ity bur­eau. Au­thor­it­ies will identi­fy and loc­ate vic­tims for in­ter­views in hope of glean­ing more de­tails about their ex­pos­ure.

The volume of emer­gency-room vis­its seemed to peak late Monday morn­ing and early af­ter­noon.

“There were ac­tu­ally people sit­ting in the hall­way” out­side the emer­gency room at Aria-Tor­res­dale, Melanie Mc­Comb said.

By 2:30 p.m., only a hand­ful of people re­mained in the ER wait­ing room, many for un­re­lated cases.

Sources close to the in­vest­ig­a­tion spec­u­lated that as word of the in­cid­ent spread via news me­dia re­ports and Judge’s own stu­dent-no­ti­fic­a­tion sys­tem, more people went to hos­pit­als as a pre­cau­tion.

One early news re­port link­ing the con­tam­in­a­tion to a broken light fix­ture in the school aud­it­or­i­um was er­ro­neous, Campel­lone said.

“Some the­or­ies that were re­por­ted in the me­dia we can’t con­firm,” said Jim Gar­row, a health de­part­ment spokes­man.

The Fath­er Judge pres­id­ent noted that a varsity/JV bas­ket­ball scrim­mage was played in the same gym­nas­i­um on Fri­day night, fol­lowed by a flea mar­ket in the school cafet­er­ia on Sat­urday, but no ill­nesses were re­por­ted from either event.

Al­though Judge is an all-boys school ad­min­istered by the Ob­lates of St. Fran­cis de Sales for the Arch­diocese of Phil­adelphia, it has fe­male cheer­lead­ers, most of whom at­tend St. Hubert High School for Girls in May­fair. In 2009, they were named the “Best of Philly” cheer­lead­ing squad by Phil­adelphia magazine fol­low­ing a top-10 fin­ish in a na­tion­al com­pet­i­tion.

The 10th an­nu­al Fath­er Judge Cheer­lead­ing Com­pet­i­tion is sched­uled for Jan. 28, ac­cord­ing to the school’s Web site. ••

Re­port­er Wil­li­am Kenny can be reached at 215-354-3031 or

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