NEW BEDFORD, Mass. --
Officials in New Bedford don't know what caused dangerous fumes to escape at a city transfer station near the airport Monday, sending more than 100 people to the hospital -- two in critical condition -- and triggering a dangerous Tier 4 hazardous material situation.
"We do not know at this time what the substance was," said New Bedford Fire Chief Paul Leger.
"We do not know at this time what the substance was," said New Bedford Fire Chief Paul Leger. "We're trying to determine the material so patients can be treated."
Police set up a "hot zone" around the New Bedford Waste Services plant at 1245 Shawmut Ave. to protect the public, calling the hazmat scene "a very dangerous situation," after more than 100 people fell ill when they were exposed to some kind of chemical vapor at the facility.
"There is very little going into this to determine what (the substance) is," State Fire Marshal Stephen D. Coan said. "We do not know at this time whether this was an accident or a deliberate act."
Decontamination tents were set up to treat some of the dozens affected by the fumes.
"They deal with day-to-day household trash," New Bedford Mayor Scott Lang said, explaining why it will be difficult to determine what the substance was.
A spokeswoman for the plant, Lisa Feitelberg-Costa, said it is too early to tell what might have sparked the hazmat situation.
"We'll wait until we get all the data," she said.
The Southcoast Hospitals Group reported treating 119 total patients, of which, 66 were treated at St. Luke's Hospital in New Bedford, and 53 were treated at Charlton Memorial Hospital in Fall River. Four people were admitted to St. Luke's, and one person was admitted at Charlton. The remaining 114 people were treated and released.
A spokeswoman for the state fire marshal's office said at the time that several workers were knocked unconscious by the fumes. St. Luke's Medical Director Paul Bulate said two who arrived in critical condition were unconscious and were being treated in the intensive care unit on ventilators. Officials refused to provide their identities.
Information indicated that two male ABC Disposal employees remained in critical but stable condition late Monday evening, and a female New Bedford EMS paramedic remained in fair condition, hospitalized for observation.
Hospital officials said some of the symptoms patients reported were nausea, respiratory distress and dizziness. The patients included employees of ABC Disposal and many first responders, including EMS paramedics, police and firefighters, hospital officials said.
Many of the patients brought to St. Luke's and Charlton Hospitals were in good condition
Ambulances were called to the disposal plant about 10:30 a.m. when they received a 911 call that some workers had become ill after being exposed to some kind of gas or vapor, police said.
Leger said all of those taken to the hospital were in varying degrees of respiratory distress and he said at least two of them were suffering "severe" respiratory distress.
"Apparently some of the workers became sick and almost spontaneously fell into unconsciousness. We've sent ambulances from the city as well as the surrounding areas. It's clearly some kind of chemical reaction," said Lt. Jeffrey Silva of the New Bedford Police Department right after the calls were received.
As many as 60 state hazardous materials technicians remained at the site through the 11 p.m. hour, and they have located what officials called was the exact area of the chemical release. The unknown substance was released as soon as an ABC Disposal truck emptied an industrial dumpster into the sorting area, officials said.
Investigators have interviewed the ABC Disposal truck driver and others in an effort to determine the origin of the Dumpster. The fire marshal said the Dumpster came from an industrial or construction site outside of New Bedford.
Silva said the exact nature of the problem at the disposal plant was not immediately clear.
"It's a hazmat situation. It's also affected some of our responding personnel, so it's really unfolding as we speak," Silva said. "We're trying to get it under control."
"There was some process going on at the location ... we still don't know what the product was at this point," Leger said, explaining later that the transfer station processes trash from the surrounding community and would not ordinarily contain dangerous chemicals.
A witness at the Shawmut Diner at the nearby plaza said some of the evacuees were speculating that a container of ammonia may have been compacted, causing it to explode and release a noxious gas.
Silva said officers closed roads to prevent cars from entering the mostly industrial area where the plant is located to prevent any "cross contamination."
Remaining workers at the plant were evacuated to the Price Right Plaza up the road on Route 140. The plant is located near the New Bedford regional airport.
He said the facility, which has about 6,000 clients, handles many different kinds of disposals.
"They engage in all types of commercial disposal and various things from chemicals to vehicles and batteries ... they're a very reputable, modern facility. We've never had any problems in that area so we're sure what's happening here is some type of fluke reaction but this is a very dangerous situation. Even household chemicals can react with one another and create quite a deadly situation," Silva said.
He said there were no real residential buildings in the area, but police worked quickly to determine whether they would need to evacuate any of the surrounding businesses.
Officials said they declared the plant area a crime scene in order to be able to proceed with the investigation in an orderly fashion.
Families of patients are asked to call the Patient Information line at 508-985-7000 for additional information.
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