Noxious gas forces BWI closings Piers D, E evacuated

US Airways grounded, stranding hundreds

8 people go to hospitals

Authorities discount terrorism, suspect ventilation system

March 07, 1997|By John Rivera, Candus Thomson, Richard Irwin | John Rivera, Candus Thomson, Richard Irwin,SUN STAFF

An airborne irritant that caused symptoms similar to exposure to pepper spray forced the evacuation of a portion of Baltimore-Washington International Airport last night, stranding hundreds of travelers and sending eight people to area hospitals.

Hundreds of passengers spent hours milling about the terminal's upper-level concourse, waiting to find out whether they would be able to board flights for their destinations.

Most did not, as airport officials closed Pier D for hours, causing the cancellation of flights by US Airways, BWI's largest carrier.

"If you are a local US Airways traveler, return home," a ticket agent announced about 9 p.m.

The noxious fumes were first noticed about 5: 45 p.m. at gate D-24, when waiting passengers began experiencing burning, watery and itchy eyes, sneezing and coughing, said Theodore E. Mathison, executive director of the Maryland Aviation Administration.

Airport officials evacuated all of Pier D, which has 47 of the airport's 65 gates and is the departure point for most US Airways flights.

"It smelled like pepper spray. It was burning and itching," said Jackie Bradley, manager of the Hudson News, a newsstand at the entrance to Pier D. People were calm and under control as they left, she said.

Twenty-one people were treated for symptoms, most of them receiving attention from medics at the airport. Seven people were sent to North Arundel Hospital in Glen Burnie, where two were admitted overnight in satisfactory condition, said hospital spokesman Kevin Murnane. One person was treated at St. Agnes Hospital.

About 6: 45 p.m., a passenger waiting for a flight at Pier E complained of similar symptoms, leading to the evacuation and closure of that pier, Mathison said. A total of about 1,500 people were evacuated from the two piers.

Pier E, which accommodates international flights, reopened at 8: 30 p.m and Pier D at 10: 40 p.m.

Although US Airways officials hoped some flights would be able to land, they didn't expect any to take off last night.

A dozen US Airways flights coming into Baltimore to pick up passengers before taking off again were affected by the evacuation, said company spokesman Richard M. Weintraub. Nine of them were already in the air when the evacuation occurred, and they had to be diverted to other airports, including Dulles; Richmond, Va.; Philadelphia; and Harrisburg, Pa.

One very important US Airways flight did manage to land.

"One of the flights that we were able to get into Baltimore was a flight with a kidney aboard for transplant," Weintraub said. The "life flight" originated in Pittsburgh and landed about 7: 30 p.m.

One other carrier at BWI was affected by the fumes incident. TWA had to move its flights that took off from Pier D to other gates in the airport, Mathison said.

Last night, airport officials still did not know what caused the noxious fumes. "It appears it's an airborne material or substance," Mathison said.

Officials said last night that they believed the source of the fumes was the airport's heating and air conditioning system, the result of an accident rather than a malicious act.

"There's no reason now to believe that what occurred was a criminal activity," Mathison said.

"Whatever it was, it appears to be some sort of malfunction in the heating and air-conditioning system or an accidental discharge of some kind of chemical irritant like Mace."

Mathison said airport workers were reversing the motors on the heating and air-conditioning system to flush it out.

Hazardous-materials crews, outfitted in silver flame-retardant suits and yellow air tanks, were taking air samples for analyses.

The chemical wasn't the only irritant in the air.

Unhappy passengers were herded from Piers D and E onto the concourse and the piers were sealed off with yellow police tape.

Michael Rohd, who had been waiting to board an Icelandair flight to Luxembourg, had walked from the gate area to place some luggage in a locker on the concourse and was headed back to pick up something else from the gate when he was stopped and turned back by a Maryland Transportation Authority police officer.

"You want inconvenience? We're inconvenienced!" a frustrated Rohd yelled to nobody in particular.

Leslie Carson had hoped to board the same flight. She had arrived from Denver and was on a 90-minute layover in Baltimore when the fumes struck.

"They just started pushing people out," she said.

She was a bit more philosophical than most.

"There's nothing I can do," Carson said, besides calling her friends in Luxembourg to tell them she was delayed.

"If you are stuck, you're stuck."

Those who managed to get to a phone were the lucky ones. Every telephone in the concourse was being used and long lines formed.

Travelers who carried their own cellular phones were looked on with envy.

The incident delayed scores of vacations, turning relaxation into exasperation.

Bruce and Susan Rice of Towson were waiting with their three children after they couldn't board their flight bound for Heidelberg, Germany, fretting that they would miss their connecting flight in Iceland.

Their 12-year-old daughter, Molly, tried to make the best of a bad situation. "Can we stay a few extra days in Iceland?" she asked.

Pub Date: 3/07/97

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