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Chemical fire at WWU sends firefighters to hospital, cause unclear

A dozen firefighters were checked at St. Joseph hospital after breathing in an unknown gas from a chemical fire at Morse Hall on Tuesday, Aug. 25, at Western Washington University in Bellingham.
A dozen firefighters were checked at St. Joseph hospital after breathing in an unknown gas from a chemical fire at Morse Hall on Tuesday, Aug. 25, at Western Washington University in Bellingham. The Bellingham Herald

Nearly a day after a chemical fire broke out in a third-floor chemistry lab at Western Washington University, crews were still waiting to enter the building to figure out what happened.

No one was injured when the fire erupted around 5:15 Tuesday evening, Aug. 25, but a dozen firefighters who were the first to enter the building were sent to the hospital that night after breathing in an unknown gas, said Rob Kintzele, assistant chief with Bellingham Fire Department.

When they arrived, they entered the building, and seeing no smoke, started walking down a hallway. Within a moment, they took a few breaths of a foul-tasting invisible gas and immediately turned around to get protective breathing equipment, Kintzele said.

“They thought they were well within a safe zone and found in just a quick moment that they were not” Kintzele said. “When the door got cracked, they noticed a foul taste and smell.”

The large number of chemicals inside the chemistry lab had the potential to make “chemical soup,” so the department had the firefighters evaluated at the hospital, Kintzele said. A few had complained of sore throats and headaches.

“The firefighters that went to the hospital last night are not suffering from any acute illnesses,” Kintzele said. “We’ll have to be paying attention over time to see if there were any ill effects from this.”

Because crews had not since re-entered the building, it was still not clear what caught fire and caused the third-floor lab to fill with white smoke from floor to ceiling.

The university has hired Belfor, an emergency recovery and restoration company, to inspect and repair the building. It was expected that workers could assess the damage from the fire and sprinklers as soon as late Wednesday afternoon, Aug. 26, but a set time had not been determined.

It was not clear Wednesday how long the building would remain closed.

In addition to the six students and one professor who had been in the lab when the fire broke out, the rest of the chemistry building, called Morse Hall, was evacuated as soon as the alarms went off Tuesday evening. It was not clear how many people were in the building, but firefighters searched every floor to make sure no one was left inside, Kintzele said.

Once firefighters broke a few windows out of the lab to ventilate the smoke, the Biology building also was evacuated as the air intake for that structure was nearby, and the two buildings are connected by a walkway and tunnel.

The chemistry building remained locked and surrounded by caution tape Wednesday afternoon, with signs warning people not to enter the building, Kintzele said.

The university is between terms, with summer quarter having just ended, but some faculty members and students were still using the building. They will be moved to other locations while the building is worked on, according to Paul Cocke, university spokesman.

The university has counseling services available for any students or staff affected by the fire. For students, the counseling center can be reached at 360-650-3164 and is located in Old Main 540 during business hours. Faculty and staff can call the Employee Assistance Program at 877-313-4455.

Reach Samantha Wohlfeil at 360-715-2274 or samantha.wohlfeil@bellinghamherald.com. Follow her on Twitter at @BhamPolitics.

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