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.