A hazmat team in full protective gear continued digging this evening through household trash at a transfer station in New Bedford searching for the source of noxious fumes that left two employees in intensive care and sent more than 100 other people to local hospitals.
Scores of emergency responders from across Massachusetts descended on ABC Disposal Inc. at 10:25 a.m. when two employees lost consciousness in a facility where trash is sorted on a conveyor belt. Employees have not reported hearing an explosion or other indication of a release of a gas, but soon others began to experience a burning in the mouth and throat.
"Upon further investigation, we determined that there was some kind of a release of a chemical of some type. We do not know what that is," New Bedford Fire Chief Paul Leger said at an afternoon press conference. Leger added, "Our focus right now is to get these patients the care that they need by finding out exactly what the product was."
Hazmat technicians were picking by hand through the trash on a conveyor belt and using metering devices to try to pinpoint the source of the fumes, according to State Fire Marshal Stephen Coan. The team is also examining a machine that crushes scrap metal.
"We expect this to be a long-term incident," Coan said. "Right now, there is no indication of a vapor cloud or loud explosion … We don't know what the fumes are."
The two employees that are in critical condition are still undergoing diagnostic studies, according to Dr. Paul Bulat, medical director at St. Luke's Hospital.
"They are both unresponsive," Bulat said. "They are both on the ventilator and in the intensive care unit."
Tonight, they were listed in critical but stable condition.
At least 11 people were taken to area hospitals by ambulance, according to Joyce Brennan, spokeswoman for Southcoast Health System. A bus took people to St. Luke’s Hospital, where a decontamination tent was set up outside the emergency room. Another bus took people to Charlton Memorial Hospital in Fall River, Brennan said.
The majority of the ill were decontaminated and treated and are in "good condition," Brennan said. Officials did not have a breakdown of how many patients were admitted to hospitals and how many were treated and released.
Scores of other people -- including 15 police officers, firefighters, and paramedics -- also had to be decontaminated.
On the beat
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