ELIZABETH, N.J. – A trucking company worker accidentally damaged a pressurized tank of sulfur dioxide Tuesday, releasing a cloud of the noxious gas and sickening dozens of people.
Fifty-two people exposed to the chemical were decontaminated and taken to hospitals. Several of them, including a firefighter, reported trouble breathing, but none of the injuries appeared to be serious, said city Fire Director Onofrio Vitullo.
The mid-afternoon accident happened as a worker attempted to dismantle a pressurized tank at Full Circle Carriers, a trucking company. The worker snapped the neck off the tank, releasing the gas cloud, officials said.
Witnesses said people began vomiting after breathing the gas, a poisonous industrial chemical that smells like a match that has just been struck.
Deputy Fire Chief Lathey Wirkus arrived at the scene and began to feel his lungs burning.
"I started screaming at all these people to run down the street," Wirkus said. "They were hacking, coughing, snot coming out of their noses."
Wirkus saw a dog nearby on its side with its tongue panting.
"I thought to myself, `If this dog is in this condition, imagine what it's going to do to all of us,"' said Wirkus, who received oxygen at a hospital.
Sulfur dioxide is chiefly used in the preparation of sulfuric acid and other industrial chemicals, but it can also be used as a disinfectant, a refrigerant and a food preservative.
A hazardous material crew was brought in to seal the tank, Vitullo said. Police closed roads leading into the area, four miles south of Newark.
Eddie Rodriguez, 52, a truck driver from Cliffside Park, was having a shipping container loaded onto his truck when he suddenly smelled a strong odor, and then he couldn't breathe.
"I looked in my mirror and the guy behind me got out of his truck and started throwing up and gasping for air. All that time, I couldn't breathe either," Rodriguez said. "Everywhere around me, like 50 guys were feeling the same way."
Rescue workers took Rodriguez to a decontamination tent, stripped off his clothes, then washed him down with soap and water before taking him to a hospital.