California Elementary Teachers Sue Delta After Plane Dumps Jet Fuel Over School

Tara Law

Teachers who were at a Cudahy, Calif., elementary school when a Delta aircraft dumped fuel overhead on Tuesday have filed a lawsuit against the airline, accusing it of negligence.

The teachers, who asked not to be named, felt “sick, dizzy and nauseated” after being covered with the fuel, prominent women’s rights attorney Gloria Allred said at a press conference after filing the lawsuit on Friday. Allred said the school children began to scream and cry, and the teachers rushed them inside. At least 60 people were treated for minor injuries, according to CNN, including at least 20 children and 11 adults at Park Avenue Elementary School.

The airplane, a Delta 777-200, had been required to turn back to Los Angeles International Airport shortly after taking off on a trip to Shanghai, Delta said in a Jan. 14 statement. After encountering an “engine issue,” the aircraft released fuel, which Delta characterized “as part of normal procedure to reach a safe landing weight.”

The FAA has confirmed to TIME that the pilot did not tell air traffic controllers that it would dump the fuel. It has said that it is “thoroughly investigating” what happened.

In the press conference, Allred characterized the fuel dump as “unnecessary and dangerous” and noted that the pilot had told air traffic personnel that releasing the fuel would not be necessary. She said that the plane had not tried to fly at a higher altitude, which would have permitted the fuel to dissipate, or to fly the aircraft in a holding pattern to burn off fuel.

“Had the Delta pilot notified air traffic personnel of the need to dump fuel, the flight would have been directed by air traffic control to a location and to an altitude from which fuel could have been released without danger to the teachers, the students, and others at the school,” Allred said.

One Park Avenue Elementary School teacher, who has been an instructor for 13 years, was outside with 5th grade students on the playground when she spotted a plane flying low overhead and releasing white vapor, she said at the press conference. Soon afterward, she felt what seemed to be “drizzle” until the playground was flooded with the stench of fuel. She said that the liquid affected the victims’ eyes, noses, mouths, lungs and skin.

“I immediately began to rush my students indoors, as the fumes were stifling,” said the teacher. “My students began screaming and crying because their eyes and skin were burning. Fear, dread, panic and helplessness ensued. We are all very experienced teachers. But we are not equipped to deal with this level of hazardous contamination.”

The unnamed teacher said that as the other instructors were consumed with helping their students, they had to wait several hours to help decontaminate themselves. She noted that she and other teachers are concerned about the longterm affects of the incident, and have already experienced “eye, sinus, respiratory, and other health issues.”

Several teachers said that they sought emergency care in the hours or days after the fuel dump.

Another teacher, who has taught at Park Avenue Elementary School for 21 years, said that she received urgent care the next day because she had a severe headache and was nauseous.

“I’m scared of what can happen to my health, the health of my students, my friends and my colleagues,” the teacher said.

Delta did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit.

Allred said that other plaintiffs may join the lawsuit.