By Kevin Coughlin and Sharon Sheridan
Fire and rescue personnel evacuated a three-story medical office complex at 261 James St., Morris Township, late Tuesday afternoon after workers and patients were overcome by an unknown airborne chemical that caused breathing difficulties.
Brigette Fullard, 44, said she was overcome and had to run from her second-floor Allied Surgical Group office shortly after 5 p.m.
“Once I got the first whiff, I couldn’t talk,” she said. “My eyes and face were burning. It was like someone took all the oxygen away. My eyes were watering. Even now [just over an hour later], my face is burning.”
Patients were evacuated, and at least two staff members were taken to Morristown Memorial Medical Center, she said.
Jeff Paul, spokesman for the Morris County Office of Emergency Management, confirmed that two people with respiratory complaints were treated by Morris Minute Men rescue personnel and transported by the Morristown Ambulance Squad and New Vernon First Aid Squad to the hospital for assessment, then treated and released. They treated an additional seven people at the scene, he said.
The chemical could have been pepper spray or a cleaning agent, but it is too soon to tell, Morris Township Fire Chief Scott Lovenberg said. Earlier in the day, work had been done on the heating-and-ventilation system in the building, he said.
A first examination of the building “found nothing of significant concern,” and officials were going to do a second evaluation, Paul said.
A patient visiting a third-floor doctor’s office, who didn’t wish to give her name, said there was an odor in the stairwell, then everyone started coughing. “The girls at the front desk couldn’t catch their breath.”
They moved into the back of the office, and some people thought the chemical might have been pepper spray, she said, adding that people were choking and coughing.
But Allied Surgical Group’s Cindy Gordon, who called 9-1-1 about the incident, said they didn’t notice any unusual odor or taste. She was sitting at her desk in the back of the office and “suddenly everyone was coughing.”
Even someone from the mailroom began coughing, she said. “I said, ‘Not you, too.’”
Some of her officemates were “coughing almost to the point of throwing up,” she said.
Co-workers at the front desk were most affected; she didn’t begin coughing until she was on the phone reporting the incident, she said. Although not frightened, she said, “it was unbelievable that it was happening.”
At 6:30 p.m., Paul had said that members of the Morris County Hazardous Materials Team and Morris Township Fire Department had entered the building to try to determine the source of the incident. Evacuees said the fire department had placed fans inside the building to ventilate it.
Last week, the emergency management office had issued a notice saying it was on alert for issues related to proposed military action in Syria. Asked whether that or Wednesday’s anniversary of the 9-11 terrorist attacks were suspected to be related to the James Street incident, Paul said, “It’s way too early to make any rush to judgment.”
Dr. Suhaib Nashi, a pediatrician working on the first floor, said he did not notice an unusual odor. He expressed concern about getting back into the building, noting that vaccines must be refrigerated or they will go bad. He also said his car keys, cell phone and other possessions were inside the building, and he had no idea when he would be allowed back inside to retrieve them.
At least three fire trucks, four rescue vehicles and several police vehicles were at the scene. Those responding included personnel from the Morris County Office of Emergency Management, the Morris County Hazardous Materials Team, the Morris Minute Men, the Morristown Ambulance Squad, the New Vernon First Aid Squad and the Morris Township, Madison and Morris Plains fire departments.