Senior Trip to Dominican Republic Goes Sideways After Group Falls Ill

June 18, 2019 Updated: June 18, 2019

A large group of high school graduates and their parents became sick while on vacation in the Dominican Republic in early June, and some are still reeling from the illnesses.

The youth graduated from Deer Creek High School in Oklahoma and were accompanied by some parents.

At least 40 graduating seniors were part of the group, parent Liz McLaughlin told News 6. Her daughter Libby was one of the members of the group who got sick after eating at a Japanese restaurant at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Punta Cana, where two Americans have died in the past year.

McLaughlin said the exact source of the illnesses isn’t clear.

“We just don’t know what is happening. Is it the water? Is it the ice? Is it the food? Is it the food handling? Is it the pesticides? We have no idea what’s going on,” she said.

Deer Creek Public Schools Superintendent Ranet Tippens said she’s aware of what happened.

“The one parent that I had spoken to said that … the majority did just fine and those that became ill ate at the same restaurant,” she told The Oklahoman.

She estimated the group size at about 75 and said that only six of them became sick.

Bennet Hill said that he was one of the seniors who contracted an illness after eating out.

“I just woke up, and my stomach was cramping and I was sweating,” Bennet told KOCO. “I was freezing.”

He said that six other people got sick and that they were all rushed to a nearby hospital due to the severity of the symptoms.

“We’ve been hooked up to IVs since we first got here with antibiotics, just getting hydrated,” he said. “Anti-nausea medicine, all this stuff because we were just so dehydrated.”

A spokesperson for the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino said that it “took corrective action” after the students fell ill.

“Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Punta Cana is disappointed regarding a recent situation in which a group of guests became ill after dining at one of our twelve venues,” the resort said in the statement, which was obtained by the New York Post. “As the safety and health of our guests is now, and has always been our highest priority, Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Punta Cana is regretful that we did not achieve the extremely high standards we set for ourselves.”

Deaths

At least 12 Americans have died under suspicious circumstances in the Dominican Republic in the past year. The causes of the deaths are being probed by the FBI and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Two Americans—David Harrison of Maryland and Robert Bell Wallace of California—died at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, where the group of teens and their parents were staying.

A doctor said that symptoms seen in the tourists who died are consistent with poisoning.

In an interview with The New York Times, Tom Inglesby, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said reported symptoms such as pulmonary edema, bleeding, and vomiting blood could point to poisoning, even if accidental.

He added that it is still difficult to pinpoint exactly what caused the deaths of the tourists, and the exact reason will only be known when toxicology reports are released. Autopsies have been done on many of the deceased but toxicology tests take months to complete.

“It’s rare for travelers to die of unknown causes like this, and to have a high number of them in a relatively short period of time is alarming, shocking, sad,” Dr. Inglesby said. “It’s something that investigators should be able to get to the bottom of.”

Police officials in the Dominican Republic were eyeing whether bootleg alcohol was the cause of the deaths.

Officials were trying to figure out who supplied the liquor that the victims drank in hotel rooms and resorts before dying. Sources told the New York Post that they’re trying to determine if there were any harmful chemicals in the drinks.

Many of the tourists drank alcohol from the minibars in their rooms or elsewhere at the resorts before dying.

Follow Zachary on Twitter: @zackstieber
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