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 firstname.lastname@example.org