BANNER ELK — Acting in what was called an “abundance of caution,” Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk evacuated the Avery Residence Hall on Aug. 30, to investigate a suspected gas leak after a call was placed to Banner Elk Volunteer Fire Department at 12:29 a.m. that morning.
Students had returned to the hall as of 8 p.m. on Aug. 31, according to a press release from the college.
“Some students in one of our residence halls, Avery, reported feeling unwell to our staff,” Lees-McRae College’s Vice President for Planning and External Relations Blaine Hansen said. “In an abundance of caution, we evacuated the building and emergency services was called.”
Hansen said that approximately 160 students live in Avery Residence Hall. According to LMC’s website, Avery Residence Hall houses female students from freshmen to seniors. Lees-McRae College is a co-ed private college of just more than 1,000 students situated in downtown Banner Elk.
About 70 students were transported to and received treatment at Cannon Memorial Hospital in Linville, Watauga Medical Center in Boone and Blue Ridge Regional Hospital in Spruce Pine.
“Most students have returned from local hospitals,” Hansen said.
“Students are returning to campus, and we are temporarily accommodating the residents in King-Shivell Lounge and Evans Auditorium, along with food service in Wily’s Bar and Grill,” LMC said in a social media post on Aug. 30. Small groups of students were escorted through the building to pick up personal effects that day as well.
Gas was turned off to the building soon after the incident was reported, Hansen said. The cause of the students’ condition is being investigated, Hansen said.
“The college is incredibly grateful for all emergency services and health care professionals who helped us and came together... to make sure that everyone is safe and well cared for,” Hansen said. “Lees-McRae is grateful for assistance from local emergency and health professionals with special thanks to the local EMS teams, Banner Elk Police Department, Banner Elk Volunteer Fire Department, Appalachian Regional Health System, and Avery County Schools.”
According to a separate release from Lees-McRae, during the initial evacuation and subsequent sweeps, hardwired detectors in the building, and those worn by first responders were not triggered to elevated carbon monoxide levels. All devices were tested and found to be operational.
Investigations continued throughout the day by county inspectors, utilities representatives, professional contractors and college facilities staff. No natural gas leaks were found and this was eliminated as the possible cause.
Additional testing concluded that all equipment is normally functioning, with the release of carbon monoxide below regulatory limits. Officials have not been able to replicate the conditions that led to the initial evacuation.
During inspections, an unrelated code violation was found in a natural gas regulator by Avery County Director of Inspections and Planning Tommy Burleson, and Burleson asked that additional ventilation measures be taken to address that separate issue.
“The Avery County Inspection department and the Avery County Fire Marshall feel that all appropriate measures have been taken, from testing of individual equipment units, to canvassing all residential sleeping areas, to ensuring that we addressed this separate concern,” Burleson said. “We have issued a certificate of compliance so the building can return to operation.”
The additional ventilation measure Burleson noted was installed by contractors from Asheville on Saturday, Aug. 31, while the building remained unoccupied. Out of abundance of caution, nine new hardwired carbon monoxide detectors were installed in Avery Residence Hall. Additional detectors are being installed in the sleeping rooms of all residence halls on campus.
Lees-McRae President Lee King spoke about the incident and expressed his gratitude for the quick response.
“Our students obviously experienced health impacts related to this event,” King said. “Despite not being able to pinpoint a direct source, the safety of our students is our top priority. The additional monitoring equipment being installed this weekend exceeds all North Carolina building codes and standards. Student safety at Lees-McRae is paramount.”
“I have nothing but the highest respect and appreciation for this entire community as we have worked through this incident,” King added. The initial emergency response, the support of regional medical services, and the combined efforts of professional contractors and local officials show the real strength of this community. I am also grateful for the resiliency, patience, and character exhibited by our students and staff throughout this event.”