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23 reported ill in suspected gas leak at eatery

The Desert Sun October 11, 2001

INDIO –– Four people were taken to an area hospital in stable condition and as many as 19 others became ill Wednesday from apparent exposure to carbon-dioxide gas at a fast-food restaurant.

The four people taken to the hospital are all employees of a McDonald’s restaurant in the 81-000 block of Highway 111. The restaurant was closed for more than three hours as crews investigated the incident and tended to those who became ill. The victims were then taken to John F. Kennedy Memorial Hospital with symptoms of nausea and dizziness. County officials did not release their names.

Anthony Coletta, emergency services coordinator for the county of Riverside, said 19 other people, including seven firefighters, suffered nausea and dizziness but were treated and released at the scene.

"None of this was life-threatening," he said.

Coletta said the restaurant was evacuated shortly after 11 a.m. after paramedics who were in the basement treating an employee suffering from chest pains began to feel dizzy.

It was later determined that the chest pains were caused by the carbon-dioxide gas, he said.

A hazardous material response team, clad in protective clothing, entered through the back door at about 1:30 p.m. and discovered high amounts of carbon dioxide in the basement.

The building was then ventilated.

Coletta said the team found no leaks. It appeared likely that the gas escaped from a 400-gallon carbon-dioxide tank used to carbonate soft drinks, he said.

An employee closed the valves on the tank before leaving the building, he said.

Carbon dioxide is an odorless gas that can be fatal in closed quarters, he said.

Some customers said they noticed a peculiar odor shortly before the evacuation. One said he feared it was a biological agent in the wake of reported cases of anthrax in Florida in recent days.

"The first thing that came to my mind was anthrax. I was a little scared," said Juan Murgui, who was eating breakfast when the evacuation occurred.

-- PHO (, October 11, 2001

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