Mystery rash sends 40 Queens students to hospital

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Forty PS 161 fifth graders learning how to use encyclopedias Tuesday morning were instead given a lesson in the new realities of life in the United States.

The students were loaded into a city bus and transported to Jamaica Hospital along with three of their teachers after a mysterious itchiness broke out that spread like wild fire among children in the third-floor library of the Richmond Hill school.

Witnesses and officials said a student opened a book around 10:30 a.m. and immediately started to break out into hives. The itchy sensation spread and before teachers could determine what was happening, the discomfort had reached all 40 students in the room.

“One kid had a rash and then all of a sudden all the kids had it,” said Lyndon Williams, father of a fifth grader, referring to the itch.

At least three of the students had skin rashes on exposed surfaces, officials said.

“We’re talking about some form of contaminant they were exposed to,” said Dr. Alan Cherson, deputy medical director of the Fire Department. “We’ve tested for a number of things, but they’ve all come up negative.”

The Fire Department’s Hazardous Materials Squad conducted tests on every floor of the building at 101-33 124th St., but found no physical contaminants, officials said. Projects for an upcoming school science fair were in the school at the time, but officials said blaming the outbreak on the experiments was pure speculation at that point.

Fire engines and Hazmat trucks lined 124th Street and a phalanx of seven ambulances filled the school yard. Police from the 102nd Precinct closed off 124th and 125th streets between 101st and 103rd avenues and Jamaica Hospital implemented its disaster plan in preparation for treating a large number of children.

Shaakirah Medord, a 10-year-old fifth grader whose arms and face began to itch, said the students who had just been chastised for being too noisy during a lesson on how to use encyclopedias, all thought they had been hit by an anthrax attack.

Fifth grader Sabena Khan said she became scared as her eyes, lip and legs began to itch.

Four EMS workers who were among the first to arrive on the scene were also brought to Jamaica Hospital for treatment, police said.

Administrators called all fifth-grade parents, but word of the outbreak quickly spread among all the students’ parents who learned of it on the news, from other parents or because they heard the wails of sirens from the pack of emergency vehicles that descended upon the neighborhood.

By 11:30 a.m. more than 50 frenzied parents had arrived at the school and were ushered into a first-floor conference room.

An EMS official told the anxious parents that students were taken five at a time to the bathroom, where they washed up with soap and warm water before they would be taken to the hospital.

Students who were not in the library were held in their classrooms, the official said.

The briefing did little to ease the nerves of the parents, who besieged the EMS official with questions and comments.

“Is there any sign of anthrax?” asked one parent. “My child is traumatized. Just give me my child,” said another parent.

Standing in the bitter cold outside the school, another group of about 25 parents had assembled around 12:30 p.m.

“I’m absolutely petrified,” said Mira Quintana, who had three children in the school.

“I was home and I heard all the trucks,” said Muntaz Mohammed, father of a sixth grader. “You’ve gotta be worried. So many different things could be happening.”

Students shepherded by parents and emergency services personnel boarded a city bus and were whisked away to Jamaica Hospital.

In all, 60 people were treated by doctors at the hospital for discomfort caused by “an undetermined skin irritant” and released, said spokesman Michael Hinck.

Sabena Khan’s mother, Bibi Khan, said doctors could not give her a definitive answer as to what caused her daughter’s skin irritation. “They gave us Benadryl and sent us home,” she said. “It’s a mystery.”

Although police were continuing with an investigation Tuesday evening, District 28 Superintendent Neil Kreinik said the school was thoroughly washed down and classes were scheduled to resume Wednesday.

Reach reporter Daniel Massey by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 156.

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