Investigators probably won’t know what caused a toxic release at the Boeing Co.’s fabrication division until sometime next week, a company spokesman said Saturday.
“We’re still working on trying to determine what made it happen,” division spokesman Tom Koehler said. “We know what happened, but not why it happened.”
The corrosive gas release sent an acid plume about 200 feet into the air and 117 people were taken to area hospitals - most with minor injuries.
The release of the noxious fumes happened at mid-morning Friday, when two Boeing supervisors were pumping about 300 gallons of mixed nitric and hydrofluoric acid from a tank in the 17-68 Building to a portable tank for transportation to an on-site waste-treatment site, Koehler said.
The supervisors were filling in for striking Machinists.
The two employees handling the chemical transfer were men in their mid-30s with 10 to 15 years of experience, said Peter Conte, a Boeing fabrications spokesman. Both wore all the required protective gear, including respirators, and neither was among those taken to hospitals, Conte added.
Boeing declined to identify the supervisors who were transferring the chemicals, pending the investigation.
Machinists Union lead negotiator Bob Gregory said the incident raises serious concerns about the safety and quality of work being performed by Boeing during the strike, which began Oct. 6.
“We very much hope that Boeing is not assigning unqualified and untrained people to perform work that could endanger the public or the Boeing employees inside the plants,” Gregory told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on Friday.
The acid, used as a cleaning agent in an area where spare parts for airplanes are made, may have come into contact with metal inside the portable tank, causing a chemical reaction, said Ronald Groff, a Boeing safety manager.
The interior of the tanks is lined with a plastic-type material. The acid might have found its way past the protective lining, Boeing officials said.
Koehler said the incident was the first of its kind at the Auburn facility.
“We are a very large facility with a lot of equipment and machinery,” Koehler said Saturday. “We have concerns that we address daily, but nothing quite like that.”
Investigators from the state Department of Labor and Industries were at the fabrication division Saturday, Koehler said. It was going to be closed through the weekend but Koehler said it would reopen on Monday morning.
“It’s going to be business as usual,” he said.
All of those who received medical attention came into contact with the highly toxic chemical outside the plant, Koehler said. They complained of burning eyes and throats, difficulty breathing and a metallic taste.
The fabrication division usually has a work force of about 8,000 people but is down to about 2,300 because of the company-wide Machinists union strike. Roughly 50 people were in the area where the reaction occurred, down from 200 to 300 normally, Koehler said.
James Halikas, 44, a Boeing employee who had been in serious condition at Harborview Medical Center, was upgraded early Saturday to satisfactory condition, a nursing supervisor said.
Seven others at Harborview were in satisfactory condition on Saturday.
Four of the 19 people treated at Valley Medical Center in Renton were kept overnight. All were in stable condition on Saturday.
Others went to Virginia Mason Medical Center, Auburn General, Good Samaritan in Puyallup, St. Francis in Federal Way, Highline in Burien, Children’s in Seattle and Tacoma General.