A faulty ice rink resurfacer is being blamed for putting carbon monoxide gas into the air at a hockey rink near the Wisconsin Dells and sending 81 people to area hospitals, authorities said Sunday.
Hospitals near the Poppy Waterman Ice Arena in Lake Delton received the people who were at the rink Saturday night for the Minnesota Junior Hockey League game between the Dells Ducks and the Rochester Ice Hawks.
Fire officials said patients' symptoms included dizziness, nausea, headaches, vomiting and fainting, the officials added.
One Ducks player fainted and was hospitalized Sunday in Milwaukee, where he was receiving oxygen therapy in a hyperbaric chamber and improving, said head coach Bill Zaniboni. Doctors ordered another Ducks player to stay in bed at home until Wednesday, Zaniboni said.
The carbon monoxide came from one of the rink's two propane-fueled resurfacing machines, Lake Delton Fire Chief Darren Jorgenson said.
The Olympia resurfacer "wasn't fully combusting the propane," and the ventilation system failed to offset the problem, Jorgenson said. "The employee who was operating it said he thought it was functioning normally."
The faulty machine was "tagged" out of service and will be inspected Monday, as will the other resurfacer, Jorgenson said. Both machines passed inspections just before the hockey season began this fall, Jorgenson said.
The rink is not required by state law to have a carbon monoxide detector in the building, Jorgenson said.
Despite the lack of a legal mandate, Jorgenson added, "any space that people occupy where there is a fuel-burning appliance, it's great to have as many [detectors] as possible."
Zaniboni, who spent the night at the hospital with symptoms, as did his 3-year-old son, said he favors "whatever needs to change to make it a safer environment … health is the most important thing."
Carbon-monoxide emissions have long been a concern at hockey rinks, with suspicions often focusing on ice-resurfacing equipment. In 2009, 12 Maple Grove peewee players, grades six and seven, and five spectators fell ill from carbon monoxide poisoning at a tournament in Morris.
Two weekends ago in Ottawa, carbon-monoxide poisoning at a rink was blamed for hospitalizing 16 players.
Symptoms day before
Ice Hawks head coach Nick Fatis said Sunday the symptoms started popping up among his players Friday night during a game against the Ducks at the same rink.
"I feel like this was a very avoidable situation," Fatis said. "We feel very blessed" everyone survived what could have been a deadly situation, he added.
Fatis said one of his assistants woke up at 3 a.m. Saturday to take a shower "and got violently ill in the bathroom."
In the time leading up to Saturday's game, Fatis continued, "other players were complaining of headaches and not feeling [like] themselves. I thought cold or flu but didn't really pick up" on CO poisoning.
Once Saturday's game began, players were fighting the symptoms and had trouble breathing, Fatis said. Several failed to finish the game.
After the game, Fatis continued, "one of our players from last year pulled me aside and said, 'You know, I got really sick here last year.' " The player added that his father raised the prospect of carbon monoxide as the culprit.
Every player who skated Saturday fell ill, Fatis said, along with himself.
Some of them were "on the floor in the [Super 8] lobby vomiting," Fatis said. "I triaged them to get the guys out [to a hospital], and then I kind of lost it."
Zaniboni said "we started questioning things after the game" when the player now in a Milwaukee hospital "hit the ground, out cold."
Rink closed Sunday, Monday
All Ice Hawks players and staff have been released from the hospitals. Once the team bus returned Sunday to Rochester, a couple of players were to be checked out by doctors at the Mayo Clinic, Fatis added.
Readings taken Saturday night at the rink fell into the "moderate level" of excess exposure to carbon monoxide, Jorgenson said.
By the time the leak was discovered, many players and spectators had left the rink.
Law enforcement officials fanned out to various locations in Lake Delton and neighboring Wisconsin Dells to find those who had been in the rink. Those with symptoms either were taken by ambulance to hospitals or allowed to travel there on their own.
The two teams split their games Friday and Saturday, but the rink was closed Sunday, canceling a rematch.
The rink will remain closed Monday as officials continue investigating the leak.
"This is the first time that anything like this has happened out there," Jorgenson said. "They have a pretty good record of safety and code compliance."
Players in the Minnesota Junior Hockey League are primarily those who have concluded high school-age competition and are trying to move on to college teams. About a third on the Rochester roster are Minnesotans, with the rest from other states. The Ducks roster has no Minnesotans and is made up of Wisconsin natives and players from other states and overseas.