The article below, first published in Industrial Fire World in 2008, takes on a new significance in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. It details how one St. Louis hospital dealt with a hazardous materials emergency on its own doorstep.
Almost all the initial information about a Labor Day weekend hazardous materials emergency that spread from an Illinois packaging plant to four hospitals in and around St. Louis, shutting down two major emergency rooms for nearly a day, proved to be wrong, said John Mueller, Director of Safety, Security, and Emergency Preparedness at one of the hospitals.
He was first told that two children were exposed to an unknown chemical while playing in a trash dumpster.
"I said ‘Okay, bag the kid’s clothes, put them in a negative pressure room and I’ll contact the hazmat team for St. Louis County,’" Mueller said. "Then I was told that they came by ambulance from East St. Louis."
That did not add up. An ambulance would not bring emergency pediatric patients to a hospital almost 30 miles away, crossing the Illinois-Missouri state line in the process, Mueller said.
By the time Mueller reached the SSM DePaul Medical Center in Bridgeton, a St. Louis suburb, the story had changed. Instead of two children, the patients were three adults who had arrived at the emergency room in a private vehicle. Two of those three patients were seriously ill after direct exposure to a chemical spill at an East St. Louis packaging plant.
Nearly three weeks after the incident, both Mueller and Dolph Jeck, a battalion chief for the Pattonville Fire Protection District who served as incident commander at DePaul, said they remain unclear about exactly what happened at that plant or how eight people sickened by a dangerous chemical ended up seeking treatment so far away.
Somehow, a barrel containing nitroaniline was dropped, exposing workers to the potentially toxic chemical that causes vomiting, convulsions and respiratory arrest. Ideally, the workers would have been transported by ambulance to nearby hospitals, the medical staff on duty advised to prepare by donning personal protective equipment.
But that is not what happened.
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