TOXIC release at Port of Catoosa sends 95 workers to hospitals

Thursday, July 12th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TULSA, Okla. (AP) _ News of a poison gas leak sent Collette Sumter scurrying to St. Francis Hospital in search of her husband.

Joe Sumter and 94 other workers at the river Port of Catoosa in suburban Tulsa were rushed to hospitals via ambulance, bus and private cars following an arsine leak Wednesday.

In the evening, doctors were reporting only minor ailments from exposure to the toxic, potentially lethal gas, once considered a possible chemical warfare agent.

The leak occurred about 2 p.m. at Solkatronic Chemical. Workers from Solkatronic and nearby Air-X-Changers were evacuated and transported to hospitals.

Mrs. Sumter said she couldn't get through to Air-X-Changers, where her husband works, as news of the leak spread across the city.

``I could not find out where he had been taken, to which hospital,'' she said, showing relief after being told by a nurse in the St. Francis emergency room that her husband was getting breathing treatments.

The gas release occurred on a loading dock. Authorities quickly sealed off the area and the Tulsa Fire Department's hazardous materials unit contained the leak.

An unknown amount of the substance was released, Tulsa Fire Capt. Hubert Rouse said. He did not know what caused the tank to blow.

Several employees of the two businesses reported hearing a loud ``pop'' just before people started running from the Solkatronic building.

``I looked around the corner and saw a white cloudy gas spewing out,'' Air-X-Changers employee Doug Cammllarie said. ``There was a lady right in it, flailing her arms. She ran one way, then another, like she didn't know what was going on. Then she ran out of the smoke. The smoke was just pouring out of there.''

Solkatronic makes the gas, which is used in microchip production and other industries in which workers are involved in galvanizing, soldering, etching and lead plating.

The company could not be immediately reached for comment. A call during the incident was routed to an answering machine.

Authorities said company officials acted swiftly once the leak occurred.

Arsine is the most toxic form of arsenic, and breathing even small quantities can be harmful. The gas destroys red blood cells, which can lead to kidney failure.

``So far we have not had any evidence of people showing evidence of red cell breakdown,'' said Dr. William Banner, medical director of Oklahoma State Poison Control.

It has a garlic or fishy smell, but a person can be exposed to a hazardous concentration without smelling it.

Some exposed workers' symptoms initially included vomiting, runny noses and trouble breathing, but none of the injuries was considered serious, said Chris Metcalf, a spokesman for Tulsa's ambulance service.

Later in the evening, hospitals reported a few cases in which workers had difficulty breathing and burning eyes. Healthcare officials planned to keep them hospitalized for 24 hours for observation. Others exhibiting no signs of exposure were expected to be released sooner.

``Reaction to the gas may be delayed and anyone who feels they have been exposed should seek medical attention,'' Banner said.

Officials were prepared for the worst. Emergency workers conducted a mock drill last fall in which arsine was one of several chemical agents fictiously unleashed on the city.

There is no antidote for arsine poisoning, but doctors can give exposed patients fluids to protect their kidneys, according to a fact sheet.

In severe poisoning, blood transfusions may be needed. Exposure can cause chills, fever, dizziness, disorientation and abdominal pains.

On site and at hospitals throughout the city, hazardous materials teams decontaminated workers. An employee at St. John's Medical Center was exposed walking through a decontamination area and was admitted to the hospital for observation, spokeswoman Tina Wells said.

Those exposed to the gas do not pose a threat to other people.