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100 LIC workers fall ill from gas leak

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More than 100 people were sickened after gas fumes were reported two days in a row at a Long Island City office building last week, leading the state to shut down construction at Sunnyside Yards.

Firefighters and medics rushed to 33-00 Northern Blvd. around 11 a.m. Sept. 16 after reports of a gas leak led many workers on the seventh and eighth floors to evacuate the building. Roughly 15 people were hospitalized, Fire Department officials said. Employees again reported smelling fumes around 11 a.m. Sept. 17. Some 13 people were hospitalized and 55 others were evaluated by the Fire Department, City Councilman Eric Gioia's (D-Sunnyside) office said.

"Some people got sick, some threw up," said one worker who asked not to be named. She said one of her managers remained hospitalized the day after the first fume incident.

Workers said they experienced sore throats, dizziness and itchy skin.

Fire Department officials said there was no evidence of what the source was or what type of fumes, if any at all, sickened the workers.

"Every time the units went there, they took readings with meters as well as the state DEC and city DEP," an FDNY spokesman said. "We always came up with nothing."

But the state Department of Environmental Conservation said the fumes came from the excavation of an old petroleum tank at the Sunnyside Yards directly behind the building. A substantial amount of petroleum had spilled in the ground there, DEC spokeswoman Maureen Wren said.

"Special foam had been deployed, but there wasn't enough foam there to keep the odors abated," she said. "We required Amtrak to add more foam as a temporary measure. It seems to have assisted in preventing the odors from going off-site."

A stop-work order has been placed on the site, which Amtrak was cleaning up as part of a consent agreement with the state, until the railroad can develop a more comprehensive plan to contain the fumes.

Gioia criticized Amtrak for not taking more care.

"With railyards, it's clear what's beneath the ground," he said. "When it's excavated, a lot more caution has to be taken."

A Sept. 17 memo circulated at First Transit, which operates Access-A-Ride services for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority at the building, warned employees about "unnecessary evacuations yesterday and today," noting that numerous agencies and Con Ed had said there was no fume danger in the building.

"Multiple tests have been run and re-run and there is no detection of any harmful odors, chemicals or fumes," the memo states.

Workers were frustrated with the situation.

"The memo said there was no emergency," said Roxanne Russell. "So why was people falling over yesterday?"

Tabitha Wilson, who has worked at the office for five years, complained about poor communication during potential emergencies.

"We've had bomb threats, fires, storms breaking windows," she said. "You still never find out it's a bomb threat until he tells her and she tells him and he tells me."

Reach reporter Jeremy Walsh by e-mail at jwalsh@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

Posted 6:40 pm, October 10, 2011
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