In anxious aftermath of blast, hope emerges Residents gain support for government buyout at Wagner's Point

'Should help get us out

October 15, 1998|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

Five workers were injured. Three neighbors sought treatment at hospitals. Dozens of children reported sore throats. But even in the anxious aftermath of Tuesday night's explosion at the nearby Condea Vista plant, Wagner's Point residents quietly agreed: The accident could be a godsend.

Residents of the tiny South Baltimore neighborhood awoke yesterday, many feeling sad for the injured but thankful for their lives -- and possessed with a new sense of momentum in their effort to have a government buyout of their homes.

The accident, which left one worker hospitalized yesterday, brought two of the state's top politicians to the heavily industrial, cancer-ravaged area. Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, followed by about 50 of the 270 residents, toured the three-block neighborhood yesterday afternoon.

The governor marveled at the proximity of nearby plants and took several deep breaths of the Fairfield peninsula air. "Smells like sulfur," he told Mikulski. "Barbara, I can feel the little sting in my throat."

Mikulski hugged local environmental activist Doris McGuigan and whispered: "This is going to get the momentum going to get people out."

At an impromptu news conference on Leo Street, Glendening and Mikulski pledged unqualified support for the estimated $8 million buyout. The senator said she had secured $750,000 in federal money for the relocation, and the governor indicated that he would add "one or two million dollars" for the buyout to next year's budget -- if he's re-elected Nov. 3.

"I've looked at the health statistics here, and we have to help the families relocate," Glendening told the residents. "Even if we could guarantee that there's never another accident, it's not safe for people to be here."

Even as residents hailed the visit, they grumbled that some politicians did not show up in the spring when Wagner's Point first asked officials for a buyout. Several residents noted that the accident came two weeks after they had written proposals to Glendening and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke to jump-start stalled negotiations on the buyout but that neither had responded until yesterday.

"This feels like the center of the world today," said Betty Lefkowitz, a longtime renter who greeted Mikulski on her front porch. "It's awful that it has to happen this way, with people getting hurt, but I think this accident should help get us out of this neighborhood."

Lefkowitz, like other neighbors and officials at Condea Vista, juggled between greeting politicians and reporters, and assessing the damage from Tuesday night's explosion. The accident took place in a nearly empty nickel alloy vessel that contained aluminum and small amounts of benzene and hydrochloric acid. David Mahler, the plant's environmental manager, said the company would provide a detailed report to the Maryland Department of the Environment -- without identifying a cause -- within 48 hours.

At the plant, company officials spoke with investigators from the MDE, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the 10-month-old U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, which is handling its first accident in the state. Each body pledged prompt investigations, though government officials said it could take weeks to identify a cause.

"With an explosion, you basically have to go all the way back and reconstruct the accident," said Alan Williams, chief of the MDE's emergency response division.

Williams said that air monitors showed no evidence that Wagner's Point was exposed to toxins from a gaseous cloud that rose over the plant after the explosion -- a conclusion residents disputed.

'Totally nauseous'

Shannon Clark, 13, said her mother drove her to Harbor Hospital Center when she began feeling "totally nauseous, with burning eyes" after the accident.

Rose Hudgins, 43, suffered an asthma attack about 30 minutes after the explosion, so she drove herself and her father, John Regiec, who has leukemia, to St. Agnes HealthCare.

John Stump, 27, had what doctors called an allergic reaction to the air, with his body breaking out in red splotches. Paramedics took him to Harbor Hospital Center. "I couldn't breathe," he said. "I feel like I got drunk and smoked a lot of cigarettes at the same time."

"I never heard so many children screaming as last night," said Kay Meadows, 59. "I believe in God, and I believe God sends messages. Sometimes he sends earthquakes, sometimes floods. He sends us chemical accidents."

Even as they quietly noted the timing of the accident, residents held a candlelight vigil last night for the five injured workers. Earl McDavid fell from a 30-foot catwalk and remained in serious condition at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center last night, hospital and fire department officials said.

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