An accidental release of chlorine gas Wednesday morning from a cylinder at Pacific Steel and Recycling in east Spokane sickened more than 10 people there and at a nearby city building, police and fire officials said.
Eight of those people were hospitalized in critical condition, according to Spokane Fire Department Assistant Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer. By late this afternoon, it appeared that only three remained in critical condition, according to local hospital representatives.
Most symptoms involved respiratory issues.
The gas, which was released in a yellow plume just before 10 a.m., came from a 1-ton cylinder that Pacific workers were crushing for scrap metal, Schaeffer said.
Earlier, Spokane police had tentatively identified the gas as arsenic trichloride, which also has a yellow tint and produces similar respiratory reactions. That information was a best guess based on witness observations and information from a vendor who officials thought may have supplied the gas, Schaeffer said. Firefighters later entered Pacific Steel and made positive identification on the cylinder, he said.
Nearly 100 firefighters and paramedics responded to Pacific Steel, 1114 N. Ralph St., where hazmat crews hosed off workers who had stripped to their underwear. The workers were evacuated by ambulance.
Ronda Jordan, co-owner of Industrial Welding Co., 1203 N. Greene St., said she saw the gas floating in the air after it was released from Pacific Steel
“Everybody saw the yellow puff,” she said. “The puff of whatever didn’t look good.”
Five patients were transported to Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center. Of those, two were in critical condition, one was in serious, one was listed as stable and one was discharged.
Three patients were taken to Deaconess Hospital. Two of them had been released and one was in critical condition.
Eight were treated and released at Providence Holy Family Hospital.
After the release, nearby residents and business employees were told to be ready to evacuate. About 10 businesses in the area were evacuated, but police and fire officials said the area was safe to return to late Wednesday afternoon.
The gas drifted to a new city vehicle fleet center at 901 N. Nelson St. Dozens of responders were on scene evaluating workers for several hours Wednesday morning and afternoon.
Responders put 22 city staff under quarantine. Two more were being decontaminated and were being sent to a hospital for observation, said Ken Gimpel, the city’s assistant utilities director. City spokesman Brian Coddington confirmed later that no one who was at the city property during the incident was hospitalized.
Jeff Millhollin, the president and CEO of Pacific Steel and Recycling, arrived on the scene late Wednesday afternoon. He thanked first responders for their efforts and said his company was working with city officials to determine how a cylinder with chlorine got into the facility.
“Our primary concern at this time is for the health of our employees and the community around our facility,” he said.
Millhollin said an incident like this had never occurred in his 27-year career. Pacific Steel rarely handles chlorine cylinders, and those cylinders are usually completely empty when they arrive, he said.
Betty Chen, medical director with the Washington Poison Center, said her D.C.-based organization was aware of the incident and had been in contact with the on-scene responders.
“The hazmat incident commander is on-scene and swamped,” she said Wednesday afternoon. “They’re working on decontamination and it sounds like the situation is under control.”
Officials urged anyone experiencing symptoms of exposure like respiratory distress, nausea and dizziness to seek medical attention.
Any businesses with lingering concerns about exposure should call the fire department, Schaeffer said.
“It is important to make sure that all businesses are safe and people feel safe” returning to them, he said.
The spill taxed regional emergency responders and required support from the Spokane Valley Fire Department, Northern Lakes Fire District in Kootenai County and a Fairchild Air Force Base hazmat team.
Many firefighters and emergency responders working at the scene came from other incidents, including two suspicious house fires in Spokane Valley in the early hours of Wednesday morning, and the Rutter Canyon fire in north Spokane County.
“The fire activity and the medical activity is just the highest it’s ever been,” Schaeffer said.
With temperatures in the high 90s Wednesday, the fire department called for an air-conditioned Spokane Transit Authority bus at each site to give responders a place to cool off. Inside hazmat suits, the temperature can soar to 115 degrees, Schaeffer said.
Spokane police Lt. Rex Olson said the department was only answering emergency calls for several hours Wednesday because the cleanup effort required so many officers to control the area and help with evacuations.
Investigation into the cause of the gas release is ongoing. Schaeffer said the city would seek reimbursement for its cleanup efforts, likely from the vendor that sold the cylinder to Pacific Steel and possibly Pacific Steel itself.
Emergency crews were turning the scene over to the Department of Ecology Wednesday evening.