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Friday October 04, 2002 04:58:28 AM

Pipe bursts at health center; worker later dies


(Original publication: October 1, 2002)

RAMAPO — A county employee died, three other people were hospitalized and more than 165 people were decontaminated or medically treated yesterday after a broken sewer pipe spewed foul-smelling liquid into a Rockland health complex.

More than 200 people, including the elderly and infirm, were evacuated from Building A of the Dr. Robert L. Yeager Health Center, as the county went into its emergency response mode.

The exact cause of the employee's death has not been determined, pending an autopsy today by county Medical Examiner Dr. Frederick Zugibe, said County Executive C. Scott Vanderhoef.

The employee, whose name was not released, was a 41-year-old woman who worked with physical therapy patients. She apparently died on the way to Good Samaritan Hospital, county Fire Coordinator Gordon Wren Jr. said.

As emergency personnel tended to dozens of people who worked on several floors of the nine-story building, Vanderhoef said there was no evidence to directly link the woman's death and the other illnesses to the liquid discharged from the pipe. The 2-inch waste line had been repaired earlier in the day by maintenance workers, who did not become ill.

Field tests by the county Hazardous Materials Team showed no toxic levels of contaminants, as did samples sent to a Westchester laboratory for more detailed examination, Wren said last night.

Numerous employees complained of sore throats, headaches and runny eyes, Wren said. Four people, including the woman who died, were taken to Good Samaritan Hospital, 89 were decontaminated, and 78 were medically evaluated and released.

The three surviving patients complained of vomiting and headaches, hospital spokeswoman Deborah Marshall said. They were decontaminated on arrival and examined by doctors.

The three were released after treatment, Marshall said.

The health center reopened late yesterday after the county Hazardous Materials Team finished inspecting and sent samples by helicopter to the laboratory.

"We are dealing with one unfortunate death, and we are not sure yet what caused it," Vanderhoef said. "It's horrible. We evacuated people and decontaminated them as a precaution.

"A lot of people are upset, and correctly so," he said. "There is terrible anxiety, especially watching someone die."

The cracked pipe spewed liquid that emitted a foul odor from the third-floor ceiling just after 11 a.m. Officials evacuated that floor and the second floor, out of concern for the cafeteria there.

The county Hazardous Materials Team, some wearing the highest-level green protective suits, along with ambulance crews, paramedics and police, descended on the building. The county emergency response team trailer arrived, as did the Rockland Paramedic Services Inc. with its new trailer and tent to house victims.

Dozens of evacuated employees and patients were isolated in front of the building. Their clothes were taken from them, and they were washed down as part of the decontamination process.

Emergency personnel decided not to evacuate people from the upper floors, Hillcrest Fire Department Capt. Chris Kear said.

"Tests show no levels of contamination," Kear said, "but instead of bringing the people down by stairs or elevator and possibly exposing them to whatever is there, we decided to let them stay where they were."

The spill will be investigated by state and federal agencies.

"We're going to have an inspector go down there," said Paul Cherasard, acting assistant area director for industrial hygiene at the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration in White Plains. OSHA investigates accidents and deaths of employees in the workplace.

Cherasard said OSHA would forward the information to the state Office of Public Employee Safety and Health, which has jurisdiction over health and safety matters involving public employees.

The state Health Department also was working with the county Health Department yesterday.

A man who complained of chest pains and had been on an upper floor of the complex also was taken to the hospital. Doctors expected to release the last patient last night after treatment.

As people were brought out of the building, workers and relatives of patients who lived at the facility milled around. Many were concerned about those left inside.

Joan Leckey of Chestnut Ridge waited with her cell phone in hand. She had come to the facility to visit her 93-year-old paralyzed mother and to take her to a 1:30 p.m. Mass in the building's chapel.

Instead, she encountered yellow police tape and saw firetrucks, paramedics, nurses, doctors and people who looked like space travelers wearing different colored protective uniforms with breathing devices attached.

"I am concerned," Leckey said. "My mother's on the eighth floor, and I'm not able to talk to her. ... I don't know for sure what happened."

Gurjeed Sharman, a nurse, also was shocked when she arrived at work yesterday. She was going to meet her son, who had planned to start volunteer work with patients. She called her son and told him yesterday was not the day.

Sharman, who has worked for the county for 13 years, said her colleagues told her they were frightened.

"Security told them that they had to leave the building," Sharman said, standing outside. "This is really scary. There are hundreds of patients here. I never saw anything like this here."

Yesterday was the first time an emergency of this magnitude had occurred at a county facility, said Vanderhoef, who has been county executive for 10 years.

The county's emergency response plan, including hazardous waste management teams, has been activated for chlorine spills, railroad derailments, truck accidents with hazardous wastes and disasters such as hurricanes.

"The Hazardous Materials Team and everyone else did their job and worked together," Vanderhoef said. "We had a tragedy, though."

Send e-mail to Steve Lieberman


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