Roanoke College

Roanoke College president, community respond to tragedy

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Roanoke College President Sabine O’Hara visited patients today who remain hospitalized at Lewis-Gale Medical Center following exposure to carbon monoxide gas on Friday. The patients had been staying on campus in the Sections residence halls while attending a Lutheran Synod convention.

O’Hara expressed her concern and condolences at a news conference held Saturday morning in the college’s alumni house. She also expressed sympathy to the Virginia Synod and to the family of the Rev. Walter J. Vierling, a 91-year-old retired minister from Pearisburg, Va., who passed away while staying in the residence halls.

“It is in times like these when we deal with tragic events, with unexpected events, with events that are out of our control, that a community proves itself,” O’Hara said with emotion, “and this community has certainly proven itself.”

On Friday, O’Hara had been in Minnesota for her son’s wedding but flew back immediately to Roanoke when she learned about the tragedy. She also participated in a worship service the Lutheran group held on campus that night.

“This is my family, too – the extended family of Roanoke College and of the Roanoke Valley – so I needed to be here,” she said, “and I was very privileged to be a part of the worship service – a wonderful outpouring of support, understanding, prayers and concerns, a really remarkable event.”

More than 100 participants had been staying in the college’s Sections residence halls for the “Power of the Spirit” conference, an annual event held for Lutheran congressional leadership. Also in those buildings were 37 teenage girls who were on campus for a program called Upward Bound.

Early Friday morning, a build up of carbon monoxide was discovered in the residence halls, and 114 people showing possible symptoms of exposure were taken to area hospitals for evaluation. According to a Lewis-Gale spokesperson, only the patient who was initially in critical condition remains in the hospital. That patient is now in stable condition and expected to be hospitalized overnight.

Teresa Gereaux, director of public relations for the college, said the campus has closed the Sections residence halls and that they won’t reopen for use until the source of the problem has been positively identified and corrected.

Gereaux, who is a graduate of the college, also said she had been overwhelmed by the community response to the incident.  “So many people are reaching out to the college, trying to help us,” she said. “We’re hearing from our alumni across the country; we’re hearing from people in the city – just everywhere. I can’t even begin to tell you the scope of that, and even so, I think there’s so much concern of what happens. Our deepest sympathy of everyone on this campus is with the Vierling family and all of those who have been affected.”

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