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Midvale Journal

Students evacuated to nearby church as gas leak fills Hillcrest High

Dec 04, 2019 05:00PM ● By Julie Slama

Teachers hold up signs for Hillcrest High students to load buses after they were evacuated because of a gas leak in the construction of the new school. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

At 8 a.m. Dec. 4, after a prevalent gas odor was detected inside the school, hundreds of students evacuated the 57-year-old Hillcrest High School, leaving campus to two nearby locations before safely being transported to a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ward near the school at the corner of 7500 South and 700 East. 

About 1.5 hours after school began for the day, classes and all activities on campus were cancelled, with the exception of the girls’ basketball games, which are were slated to begin at 3:30 p.m. Though Principal Greg Leavitt later sent an email to parents noting all activities would be held as scheduled after 5 p.m. 

It was the first time in  Leavitt’s five-year history at the school that he had to lead students, faculty and staff to a secure off-campus evacuation site. He also said despite not practicing it, “it went as smoothly as can be expected.”

The evacuation began at 8 a.m., shortly after two classes – a math and a foreign language class – had earlier been moved to the cafeteria after the initial smell was detected, Leavitt said.  

“Once we had a strong gas smell, and discovered it was an overturned gas butane tank that leaked (in the new school construction site adjacent to the existing school), we evacuated everyone to their designated evacuation sites.” 

Those sites included the football field, the driver’s ed range/south parking lot and the north parking lot. At 8:04, students were made aware it was a gas leak as they stood — many without coats,  just wearing dresses or T-shirts and shorts — in the 28-degree temperatures outside. 

The evacuation process continued with the driver’s ed range students moving to join the football field evacuees, before all students were moved to the parking lot of Laser Quest at 8:20 a.m. and then five minutes later, to Hoppers on 7200 South and 900 East, Leavitt said.

“We waited 20 minutes for buses to arrive, so they could safely transport us to the church,” he said. 

During that time, students wondered about returning to classes, retrieving their car keys, backpacks, cell phones and other items. Thirty-five students on the cross country team also had their luggage at the school ready for an afterschool departure to the Footlocker Cross Country meet in California.

“We were in chemistry and then it was sudden chaos with the school evacuating,” said sophomore Erin Atkinson, who was huddled with students Kennedi Sullivan and Sophie Hastings. “At first we thought it was minor, but now we realize it’s worse.”

Erin, who planned to leave on the bus for the meet, stood outside in sandals, with her toes wrapped in pre-wrap to keep warm.

Junior Ryan Caswell, who also is on the cross country team, was with her, wearing shorts.

“I’m cool – very cool,” he said. “I almost wore pants today, but then I didn’t.”

Senior Anastasia Torres had a substitute teacher in English class as she smelled the odor.

“At first, we thought it was a stink bomb, but it smelled more and more, and we found out on the football field, it was a gas leak,” she said. “We were told to evacuate and then while we were walking out, the alarm went off and I about had a heart attack. It was terrifying at first because I didn’t know if it would all blow up and I couldn’t find my brother (Jospeh, a junior).”

She reunited with him and let her mother know they were safe.

Senior Shaydee Amos also let her parents know by cell phone she was safe.

“They were kind of freaking out,” she said. 

At 9:20 a.m., Leavitt was informed that the nearby seminary students at the school were being evacuated and brought to the church parking lot.

Meanwhile, some students left the evacuees, heading into nearby restaurants and grocery stores for warmth and food. Some also left the church parking lot before the determination was made to cancel school for the day.

“When they are 16 (years old), they are on their own and can do their own thing. If a student takes off, we aren’t going to chase them down as we will stay to take custody of the group, where it is our job to protect them and offer them security,” Leavitt said.

At 9:23 a.m., Leavitt made the decision to cancel school and informed his assistant principals, who immediately set-up a check-out system at the church parking lot.  

It wasn’t until 30 minutes later that a message was dispatched to parents on Skyward that parents could pick up students as fire marshals had yet to determine when it would be safe to access the building.

Parent and former PTA president Julie Cluff had called the school and school district before news was dispersed.

“I got hung up on,” she said. “There was hysteria already happening. I couldn’t communicate with my daughter because she is an obedient girl and had her phone in her backpack, which I traced to the school. I didn’t know what was happening as an initial alert wasn’t put out saying, ‘we’re evacuating, and all students are safe.’”

Cluff said that her daughter has health issues that makes it so she can’t walk well.

“It freaked me out that they weren’t on top of communication,” she said. “It’s scary as a parent not to know what was going on.”

Amos said that students weren’t aware of the procedure in place.

“We have never been trained on how to evacuate like this. We have had fire drills where we go out to the field and a shooter drill last year, but never like this,” she said.

IB Coordinator John Olsen said it is not a routine drill that is practiced.

“We go through and prepare for a number of emergency preparations,” he said before boarding a bus for the church. “For the unexpected nature of this, it went smoothly.”

Despite the evacuation being caused by construction and students circling the campus instead of immediately walking to Union Park across the street or to the church, Leavitt said he wouldn’t change anything in their evacuation plan.

“I feel we kept the students safe,” Leavitt said.

An hour later, at 10:35 a.m. — 2.5 hours after the evacuation — parents were informed on a third phone call of the correct church address to pick up their school children. On an 8:54 a.m. Skyward phone call, the address was incorrect.

Leavitt sent an email to parents at 12:49 p.m. informing them the school would be closed until 5 p.m. and they expected “all previously scheduled athletic and extracurricular events this evening” to go as scheduled.