Source of smell at motel eludes hazmat testing

Posted Aug. 07, 2009, at 7:36 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — The acrid smell that sickened Howard Johnson Inn guests and the firefighters who responded Thursday night to evacuate the building dissipated overnight and its source remains unknown, Assistant Fire Chief Vance Tripp said Friday morning.

The Odlin Road motel and adjacent restaurant reopened at about 9 a.m. Friday.

“Orono hazmat [hazardous materials team] has literally done every test known to man to identify what was going on,” but to no avail, Tripp said.

The two-story motel was evacuated at about 9 p.m. Thursday after a guest reported a strange smell on the top wing, manager Brian Heal said Friday morning from behind the front desk in the lobby.

“They couldn’t pinpoint it,” he said. “It’s all a mystery.” The odor “didn’t smell like anything,” Heal said. “It made your nostrils burn.”

Six people, including four firefighters, were exposed to the unknown substance and were hospitalized, Tripp said.

“We had two people taken to Eastern Maine Medical Center,” he said. “They were released about two hours later.”

Shortly after 11 p.m., “we had four firefighters that were taken to St. Joseph Hospital with the same symptoms as the two civilians,” Tripp said. “They were kept for about three hours and were let go.

“Everyone is OK at this point,” he said.

The unidentified airborne substance caused respiratory and throat problems that included a hacking cough.

“It was strong enough at the time that [some firefighters] did need medical attention,” Tripp said, adding that his internal alarm began to go off when he saw his men backing out of the building. “You always panic a little bit, especially when you have an unknown substance and it’s knocking your firefighters down.”

Firefighters, including some who were sickened, “had made it through some of the motel,” the assistant chief said. “When they opened a door to a certain section, they received more than they could handle and backed out.”

The firefighters were not wearing air tanks when they entered the building, he said.

“Usually when you have gas, you’re thinking propane or natural gas,” Tripp said. “This basically took everybody by surprise because it turned into a hazmat situation. That’s how quickly it can happen.”

Once firefighters knew they were dealing with an unknown hazardous substance, they left the building and the Orono-Old Town Hazardous Materials Team was called in to conduct air quality and chemical tests.

“They tested both floors at the motel to make sure there were no residuals — there was nothing there,” Tripp said. “They tested each room at least twice.”

The Hampden Fire Department’s decontamination team set up a tent to clean off those affected by the substance, and Brewer firefighters arrived with a trailer containing decontamination tents and other equipment to deal with chemical incidents.

Maine Department of Environmental Protection personnel also were called to the scene, Tripp said.

“They showed up and made recommendations to do more testing,” he said.

Although the Bangor Fire Department’s investigation did not pinpoint a specific cause, it was learned that panels in a room that contains the motel’s air conditioning and heating system were painted recently, Tripp said. One theory is that the ventilation system pumped the smell of the drying paint through the motel, causing the problems, he said.

“No one knows for sure,” he said. “That’s why it’s a theory.”

Control of the hotel was returned to its owners Friday morning with the understanding that they would hire an independent contractor to do more testing, Tripp said.

No suspicious materials were found when the additional air quality tests were conducted later, Heal said.

“They couldn’t find anything,” he said. “There is no trace of it today. I don’t even have a guess as to what it could be.”

When the evacuation occurred, 38 of the motel’s 58 rooms were occupied and all of the guests, estimated at 100, were placed in nearby motel rooms, Heal said.

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