BANGOR, Maine — The Howard Johnson Inn was evacuated Thursday night, and at least six people, including four firefighters, were sent to the hospital with respiratory problems after an acrid odor began sickening some of the guests staying there.
Shortly after the evacuation, which occurred at about 9 p.m., several of the guests who were forced outside by the odor could be seen in a decontamination tent established outside the motel’s main entrance. Some were coughing and choking as they were checked out by emergency medical personnel from Bangor and several outlying communities.
Two of the guests were taken to Eastern Maine Medical Center for treatment of respiratory problems, Bangor police Lt. Jeff Millard said at the scene.
Assistant Fire Chief Darrell Cyr, who was in charge of the evacuation operation, said that the Bangor Fire Department was called to the motel at about 9 p.m. for reports of an acrid odor, which he described as “very pungent.”
“We set the alarms off” to get people to evacuate, he said.
Despite searching both floors of the inn for nearly three hours, he said, firefighters were unable to determine the source of the odor. By press time, hazardous materials teams had been called in to try to identify the source of the odor.
Shortly after 11 p.m., four Bangor firefighters also were taken to the hospital for treatment of respiratory problems, Bangor Assistant Fire Chief Vance Tripp said late Thursday.
In addition to Bangor fire and police personnel, the Orono-Old Town Hazardous Materials Team was called in to conduct air quality and chemical tests, Tripp said.
In the event that the odor was caused by a chemical that needed to be washed off guests, Tripp said, a decontamination team from the Hampden Fire Department was called in and a trailer containing decontamination tents and other equipment maintained by the Brewer Fire Department were brought to the scene.
An employee who did not want to be identified said that the odor appeared to be limited to the end of the building that contains only guestrooms. Despite that, the entire facility was evacuated.
“We have to,” she said, adding that it was not yet clear when guests would be allowed to reenter the facility or if alternate arrangements would have to be made.
When the evacuation occurred, she said, 46 of the motel’s 58 rooms were occupied. She estimated there were about 100 people staying there at the time.
Meanwhile, guests wondered what was happening and when they would be allowed back inside.
“An alarm went off but there’s no smoke,” said Tammy Gwaltney of Nashville, Tenn., who flew to Maine with her husband, Ron Gwaltney, to attend the 45th Annual Maine Lobster Festival, set for Saturday in Winter Harbor.
Another guest, 13-year-old Lorenz MacDonald of Halifax, Nova Scotia, said he smelled the odor.
“I inhaled it. It made me choke, but it’s all good now,” said the teenager, who was in Bangor with his grandfather, John MacDonald, for some back to school shopping.
“They [firefighters] were banging on our door, telling us to get out,” he said. “They haven’t said when we can get back in.”
Another guest, who eventually wound up finding a motel room elsewhere in the area, described the odor as similar to that produced by welding with an acetylene torch.
Jacques Corbeil of Sherbrooke, Quebec, who was spending the night at the Howard Johnson while en route to Bar Harbor, didn’t seem to mind the disruption.
“It’s a nice night,” he said, pointing up to the full moon.