Toxic gas routs 200 at school


July 21, 1995

Toxic gas routs 200 at school

17 treated at hospital after chlorine mishap

By Hank Kalet and Sarah Greenblatt

Staff Writers

Prospect Street in Princeton was back to normal Thursday.


As bicyclists and pedestrians traveled the normally busy street, there was little evidence that 24 hours earlier hundreds of police, fire and rescue personnel swarmed the area after toxic fumes were released through the ventilating system in the Woodrow Wilson School for Public and International Affairs.

The accident forced the evacuation of more than 2o0 people from the building and sent 17 people to area hospitals, where they were treated for throat and lung irritations and released. Two others were treated at the scene.

The accident occured Wednesday at 8:58 a.m. after chemical contractors mistakenly mixed two incompatible chemicals in the basement of the building while performing maintenace on the reflecting pool outside the Woodrow Wilson School.


The contractors, employed by White House Chemicals in Trenton, were seeking to lower the pool’s pH level by adding muriatic acid to the pool water. However, they added the acid to an unlabelled drum of liquid chlorine that they thought also contained muriatic acid, causing a cloud of chlorine gas to be released into the air, Princeton Borough Police Chief Tom Michaud said.

The crew did not expect the drum to contain to contain liquid chlorine because they believed the university only used granular chlorine, he said.

A woman near the accident scene in the basement was overcome by the gas, which spread throughout the building through the ventilation ducts, he said.

William Hinshillwood, Princeton’s health officer, said Thursday that chlorine gas forms an acid when it mixes with body moisture. The acids can cause burning of the nasal, throat and lung tissues and cramps that hamper breathing and swallowing. The gas is very toxic, he said.

The building was evacuated around 9 a.m. after university officials were informed of the mishap. An E-mail message was sent to all personnel in the building, who were all evacuated by about 9:20 a.m., said workers who were interviewed Thursday.

Workers described the chlorine odor as similar to the cleaning solution used by custodians to clean the marble stairwells and floors in the building.

“At first we thought they were cleaning the marble floo

rs so nobody was alarmed,” said Denise Chambos, a temporary office worker in the building.

But the smell got stronger and university officials called borough police and asked the 100 employees and students to vacate the building. In addition, about 100 people were attending an investment seminar on the first floor.

Ms. Chambos said the building was evacuated quickly, but in an or-derly fashion.

“I went to the Xerox room and when I came back a girl I worked with said we’re evacuating,” she said. “I didn’t even take my handbag. Everybody was calm and the university handled it well.”

David Danks, a student working in the building for the summer, said he was in the building only a short time when an assistant dean notified him that the building was being cleared.

“In our office, it’s not ventilated very well and you really couldn’t smell it,” he said. “But when I left this room my eyes burned.”

About 100 people were attending an investment seminar on the first floor.

Police, fire and first aid personnel began arriving on the scene at 9:09 a.m. In addition to the Princeton Fire Department and First Aid and Rescue Squads, emergency vehicles from municipalities in three counties were called to assist.

Three other buildings – Fisher-Bendheim Hall, Corwin Hall and the Dial Club – were evacuated and several streets surrounding the building were closed to vehicles and pedestrians.

Andy Fallen, who lives at the Dial eating club, said he was in hsi room when he “heard all the commotion.”

“We have a lot of false fire alarms here and I thought it was that,” he said Wednesday as he watched the rescue teams work. “I was glad it wasn’t an alarm in Dial, but when I found out what it was, I was surprised.”

Tom Ryan, who manages the Ivy Club, said he drove up Prospect Avenue just as the emergency vehicles arrived.

“I thought it was an explosion in one of the kitchens,” he said. “The whole street was backed up.”

Princeton firefighters and hazardous materials handlers from Hamilton and West Windsor, dressed in white and yellow containment suits, searched the building to ensure that no one remained inside.

Search team members were examined after leaving the building by rescue workers at the scene to check for signs of gas exposure.

A 55-gallon drum, which contained about 10 gallons of the chemical mixture, was removed from the building at about 1 p.m. It was diluted with about 10.000 gallons of water and poured into the sewer system. Officials from the state Department
of Environmental Protection and the Stony Brook Regional Sewer Authority supervised the disposal.

Emergency personnel cleared the area at about 2 p.m. and the university’s Department of Occupational health and Safety inspected the building. Employees and students returned to the building Thursday morning.

The accident is being investigated by borough police, but Chief Michaud said there was “no sign of intent.” Charges are not expected to be filed, he said.

DEP spokesperson Elaine Makatura said the department would not be investigating the incident.

Officials from White House Chemical were not available for comment Thursday.

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