One male student died and 11 people were injured in a hazardous materials situation involving hydrogen sulfide Wednesday afternoon at 21 Pearl, a student apartment complex in West Campus.
While the building was initially evacuated, UTPD spokesperson Cindy Posey said the building was no longer off-limits to residents by evening.
The deceased is a male in his 20s who may have died by chemical suicide, according to Austin Fire Department Chief Palmer Buck.
“He was locked in his apartment,” said Francoise Luca, spokesperson for the complex. “The information that we have is that the resident had been experimenting with chemicals. There was an odor, and that was what detected us to the problem.”
Student apartment complex 21 Pearl, located on the corner of 21st and Pearl Streets, received a notification of a “foul-smelling odor” at 2 p.m., according to the Lee Properties, which manages 21 Pearl.
Authorities initially responded to 21 Pearl for a cardiac arrest. Luca said she did not know if the deceased student attended UT.
“Tragically, the student resident died, and one of our staff members was taken to the hospital for evaluation,” a press release from 21 Pearl management said.
The University did not confirm whether the deceased student was a UT student but said “most of the residents of 21 Pearl are UT Austin students.”
“Our hearts go out to the victim and his family,” the statement said. “We are here to support our community.”
Of the total 11 injured people, six were transported to local area hospitals, including one staff member of 21 Pearl. The other five were treated at the scene.
Chinese junior Phan Nguyen, who was sleeping when the incident occurred, said her roommate woke her up and told her to evacuate the building because a “mysterious smell” was emanating from one of the units. Nguyen said she has “several friends around the area” but doesn’t know where she is going to stay for the night.
“I just grabbed what I could and took my cat,” Nguyen said. “I was just confused. When you get evacuated, you don’t know what’s going on.”
The hydrogen sulfide levels are “very low” at the apartment complex, and pets in the building should be safe, according to Buck. Management at 21 Pearl, which is managed by Lee Properties, did not respond to repeated phone calls for comment.
Confusion over evacuation protocol
Students were told to evacuate the building through Facebook. Operations and support assistant Donna Garza posted in the 21 Pearl Facebook page, “EVERYBODY NEEDS TO BE OUT NOW. THERE ARE PEOPLE LEISURELY WALKING OUT!!”
Residents of the complex returned to their apartments at 8:30 p.m. after getting a text message, six hours after they were evacuated at approximately 2:30 p.m. For students who had opted in to the apartment’s notification system, residents received a message asking them to evacuate via email, text message, and/or a voice mail, Francoise Luca, spokesperson for Lee Properties, said.
“They must opt in to receive our notifications,” Luca said. “They’re not always accessible by phone or email or text or other electronic means, and that’s we have on-staff personnel.”
According to Facebook screenshots provided to The Daily Texan, apartment complex managers told residents via Facebook to evacuate the building and make sure they are “checked out” by the fire department if they were feeling unwell.
However, some students expressed concern over the apartment complex’s handling of the situation. While the apartment complex is equipped with fire alarms, they were not activated during the evacuation. Some students did not know they were supposed to evacuate the complex until 30 or more minutes had passed after the complex warned students to evacuate, global studies sophomore Natalie Nehls said.
Firefighters went door to door, telling people to evacuate immediately from their apartments. Nehls, who lives at 21 Pearl, said this was the only other way they were initially notified beyond Facebook.
“It was awful,” Nehls said. “On the Facebook page, people were like, “I have been sleeping, and I didn’t hear that.’ People were like, “I was supposed to evacuate 30 minutes ago?’”
However, the complex did not activate the fire alarms because there was no fire that took place, Luca said. Luca said the apartment complex followed all its “normal procedures,” including calling the fire department, EMS and Austin Police Department.
“There are fire alarms, there are sprinklers,” Luca said. “This is a very new building, and it meets all of City of Austin standards.”
Asked about resident complaints about evacuation notifications, Luca said students have to actively take steps to make sure they receive notifications from the complex.
“If they do not opt in to the communications options that we offer them, their information sources are limited,” he said. “Each individual person chooses how they want to be communicated to.”
If you or anyone you know is considering self-harm, here are University and community resources:
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
UT Counseling and Mental Health Center Crisis Line: 512-471-2255
Behavior Concerns Advice Line: 512-232-5050
For more resources, click here.