At church where 16 were sickened, cause still a mystery

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Monsignor Robert Powell conducts Mass in the parking lot of St. Cyril of Jerusalem Catholic Church in Warwick, Bucks County. (Photo by Tom Kelly III)

Bloodwork, mechanical inspections and multiple rounds of air tests have failed to identify what caused at least 16 people to become dizzy or sick Sunday morning at a Bucks County church.

"I think it's going to end up being a mystery," said John Dougherty, the county's director of emergency services.

Paramedics, firefighters, police and county hazmat workers were called to St. Cyril of Jerusalem, a Roman Catholic church in Warwick, after three young parishioners became faint or nauseous during the 9 a.m. Mass.

Some of the emergency responders also began feeling ill. In all, six firefighters, two emergency medical workers, two police officers and at least six churchgoers were taken to area hospitals for treatment and observation, officials said.

Several other parishioners reportedly went to hospitals in private vehicles. All were released Sunday.

Officials initially suspected problems with the church heating system, but county and fire department monitors detected no carbon monoxide or toxins. Hospital blood tests also came up empty.

"We took air samples. We tested for about 100 different things, and it came up negative on everything," Dougherty said.

Meantime, the church sanctuary was evacuated and two later Masses, at 10:30 a.m. and noon, were celebrated outdoors on a mild, overcast day. About 500 attended the open-air services, said the Rev. Msgr. Robert J. Powell, pastor of St. Cyril.

Msgr. Powell also called in the church's heating contractor to inspect the system, and no problems were found. As a precaution, the contractor installed air monitors to continue to check for carbon monoxide or other aberrations.

"The police and firefighters were in four times, and then a final study was done by our heating people," Msgr. Powell said. "Everybody comes up with the fact that there is nothing wrong."

Adding to the mystery, Dougherty said, was that the first three parishioners to fall ill were sitting in different parts of the sanctuary. And Msgr. Powell said that two of the emergency workers who complained of symptoms were in the narthex, not the sanctuary.

The church was open on Monday and religious education classes were planned for the evening, Msgr. Powell said. Bob Weber, deputy chief of the Warwick Township Fire Company, said another check would be done before the classes started.

Warwick Police Lt. Mark Goldberg said there was no evidence of anyone deliberately or accidentally bringing a toxic material into the church.

"No suspicious packages, no threats, no claims of responsibility, none of those things," Goldberg said. "Basically all we have is questions, no answers."

 


Contact staff writer Larry King at 215-345-0446 or lking@phillynews.com.

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