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Chemical spurs chaos

A landfill worker and 20 people who came into contact with him were hospitalized.

[Times photo: Douglas R. Clifford]
Citrus County hazardous materials worker Shawn McMurphy secures an area at the Northwest Waste Management Facility north of Brooksville on Monday.


© St. Petersburg Times, published February 13, 2001

Victor Norka showed up for work Monday morning at the county landfill and went about his usual task of disposing hazardous wastes.

He found a 5-gallon cooler. The cooler was unlabeled. He didn't know what it contained, but he dumped the contents in a drum filled with a cocktail of other wastes.

That set off a chain of events that sent 21 people, including Norka, to the hospital, forced the closure of the county landfill and sent the emergency room at Oak Hill Hospital into "disaster" mode.

Almost everyone who came into contact with Norka -- six landfill workers, five emergency room workers, eight people who were either relatives or patients in Oak Hill's emergency room and a firefighter -- were treated for symptoms of chemical exposure.

Several were stripped naked and hosed down for decontamination -- some of them twice.

For three hours, Oak Hill diverted its trauma traffic while its staff worked furiously to mop, dust and air out the emergency room that began to smell of the chemical.

The landfill, located off U.S. 98 just south of the Citrus County line, had to be shut down for the day while a hazardous materials team examined the concoction Norka encountered. By the day's end, authorities still had not figured out what the substance was.

Already, officials are saying the chaos could have been avoided.

Bill Appleby, Hernando County's emergency management officer, said landfill workers should have called emergency management officials or the fire department. Instead, they gathered around Norka to look him over, eventually deciding to put him in a car and send him to the hospital, where he walked up to the registration desk with a co-worker.

The car that the men used, a rental car, also had to be decontaminated. "The hospital obviously had no knowledge of it," Appleby said. "He probably could have spared the hospital, and almost everybody involved, a lot of time."

Appleby intends to evaluate how landfill staffers handled the situation.

"Hopefully, there won't be a next time," he said. "This is just in case."

Along with garbage from households and businesses, the landfill deals with hazardous substances such as paint, used oil and other, "unknown" hazards. Norka, 35, who declined to comment, is a small-quantities generator inspector at the landfill and has been on the job for two years.

In the end, Norka was the only person admitted to the hospital.

Short of breath, nauseated and dizzy, he was hosed down outside and then brought indoors, where medical staffers in protective suits treated him.

Some members of the hospital staff complained of burning in their noses and throats. Several landfill workers -- who spent a good part of the day quarantined -- complained of a metallic taste in their mouths, said Brenda Frazier, a Hernando County government spokeswoman.

During the emergency, Oak Hill's ER declared an "internal disaster," an often practiced but seldom used mode designed to handle hurricanes or, in the worst case, a meltdown at the nuclear plant in Crystal River.

Patients were moved to a nearby "quick care" room that typically serves less serious patients. Their relatives and friends were shuffled off to a classroom in another part of the hospital.

Phyllis Westphall, whose 87-year-old husband was receiving treatment for some dizziness that caused him to fall Monday morning, was terrified by the situation, which kept her from her husband for two hours.

"I was absolutely out of my mind because all I heard was "disaster mode,' " Westphall said.

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