Potentially deadly gas sends 8 from hotel to hospital

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By HENRY FREDERICK (henry.frederick@news-jrnl.com) Staff Writer DAYTONA BEACH SHORES - Eight people were hospitalized Friday when an air-conditioning malfunction sent potentially deadly gas flowing inside the Holiday Inn on South Atlantic Avenue.

Emergency officials said poisonous phosgene gas, hydrochloric acid and hydrofluoric acid were released when 200 gallons of Freon leaked from an air-conditioning unit. It was chemically altered when it came in contact with propane flames in nearby water heaters.

The victims included four law enforcement officers and four hotel employees, said Sgt. Michael Fowler of the city's Public Safety Department.

All complained of respiratory problems and were sent by EVAC ambulance to Halifax Medical Center in Daytona Beach.

"Upon arrival we found a handful of people in respiratory arrest," Fowler said, but added, "None of the injured are considered to be in any real danger."

Police shut down a two-block stretch of South Atlantic Avenue in front of the hotel at 3209 South Atlantic Ave. about 4:30 p.m.

The county's Hazardous Materials Response Team set up a cleaning station in the street and began treating the victims. The road reopened at 8:20 p.m., slightly more than an hour after team members were able to turn off the hot water burners.

The smell hung in the air for several hours, even though firefighters said the vapor cloud and dangerous gases dissipated quickly.

The incident began shortly after 4 p.m. when hotel workers noticed a thick, acrid vapor coming from a maintenance room off the lobby. Four of the workers were overcome, as were the four public safety officers who responded, Fowler said.

About 100 hotel guests were evacuated on the first floor. Those in the upper floors were advised to stay in their hotel rooms.

For unknown reasons, Freon spewed from a large air-conditioning unit, and leaked into burners under hot water heaters. That resulted in the Freon breaking down into deadly gases, said Gary Sedacca, a battalion officer with the county's Response Team, which assisted Daytona Beach Shores Public Safety officers.

Because the gas was heavier than air, there was no need to evacuate the upper floors of the 8-story hotel, Sedacca said.

A two-block area was cordoned off because the gas was "nothing to play with," Fowler said.

Displaced hotel guests took the inconvenience in stride.

"There's nothing we can do about it but wait," said Bertha Toomer, 60, from Atlanta, on a weekend church outing with 35 others.

Afternoon commuters and weekend trekkers were not pleased about the inconvenience with traffic snarled more than a mile in each direction. Motorists were detoured one block north of the hotel onto Atares Avenue and one block south onto Esperanza Avenue.

George Rispo, 59, who lives on Atares, said he hadn't seen such traffic in some time on the side street.

"We don't see five cars an afternoon," he said. "All of a sudden there's hundreds of cars coming. Thankfully, they haven't taken driving off the beach here or this is what it would be like."

Nick Mangar, owner of the Ashoka Fine Indian Cusine restaurant directly across the street from the hotel, was unhappy but resigned.

"On a Friday night, I'd have 60 to 70 customers," he said with a frown. "After 9 p.m. nobody comes."


-- Doris (reaper1@mindspring.com), July 29, 2000

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