Accurate information was a problem from the first telephone call reporting the “gas poisoning” at the Hanover Industrial Air Park in Hanover, Va. After getting the address, the dispatcher asked what business it was. The caller erroneously called it Chemical Analysis instead of the correct name of Environmental Laboratories. That meant that no file card for Chemical Analysis could be found in the communications center to identify owners or whom to call in an emergency.

The fire department was not dispatched on this first call at 6:08 p.m. on Feb. 25, 1982 – only the ambulance rescue squad. When the fire department was dispatched four minutes later, an order went out to responding fire personnel that no one should enter the area of the incident without wearing complete protective clothing and positive-pressure breathing apparatus. Unfortunately, the separate ambulance rescue squads were not equipped with SCBA.

The first fire units and I arrived at 6:24. We found that the rescue squad had already entered the building and was preparing to transport four victims to the hospital. Three were suffering from both cardiac and respiratory problems, unable to tell us anything about what had occurred. The fourth person, while conscious, could not provide any information either.

Squad members get sick

As the victims were being transported to the hospital by the Ashland and Ashcake Volunteer Rescue Squads, each squad member began to get sick. One member reportedly was in “respiratory distress,” and another reported feeling “intoxicated” and started speeding at more than 85 mph to the hospital.

When a communications link was completed with two hospitals, Medical College of Virginia (MCV) and St. Lukes, we soon learned that even the hospital emergency room staff became sick, presumably after breathing air from the victim’s lungs and clothes. For the first time in history, the MCV emergency room was closed and quarantined. Ambulances used to transport victims were also quarantined.

Meanwhile, I saw two fire fighters enter the area without SCBA. They were removed immediately, of course, but it indicates a continuous need to emphasize safety. Efforts continued at the scene to identify the chemical or gas responsible for this emergency, and the hospitals began testing blood samples for some clue. An explosion meter was used to test for explosive flames. There were none.

The material has not yet been named in this report so you can share in our suspense and frustration at the unavailability of information.

Weathered cylinders, contents unknown. They were brought in for disposal.

A command post was set up just north of the building, and a team of fire fighters led by District Chief Pete Taylor entered the building to check for other victims and to search for more information. The telephone was found off the hook in the front office, and a notebook with apparent chemical formulas was found. Nothing else unusual was found in the laboratory area There was some indication in the notebook that the victims had been working with boranes. Everything removed was documented in writing.

Moving to a storage room and work area, the team found gloves and breathing apparatus lying about the area. Various tools were found on the floor. In front of an overhead door, tanks with air and nitrogen were found.

“Ah, this stuff is getting to all of us, ah, ah, . . . take over, ” radioed the rescue squad.

Every victim at the scene had been found unconscious or incoherent from an unknown gas poisoning. The rescuers went in to get them and were transporting them to the hospital. Then, one by one, the rescuers became victims.

“It’s a good idea to keep a good little ways away, ” said another rescuer over the radio, “because everybody seems to be normal and all of a sudden, you know, it hits, it hits ’em.”

Twelve rescue squad members were hospitalized. Even hospital personnel receiving the victims became sick, and the emergency room was quarantined. Back at the scene, fire officials raced to identify this dangerous gas.

The overhead door was raised. About 5 feet outside, a strange device was found and later identified as a “destruction ram” used to destroy and neutralize small cylinders of chemicals. A hose ran from the ram to a 55-gallon drum in the parking lot, about 40 feet away. Inside the drum was a caustic solution, or neutralizing bath. A pickup truck was in the lot, its door open and keys in the ignition — turned on. Eventually, a row of small cylinders was found on the ground 20 feet away. Only two of the cylinders showed any identification: borane. But that was not to be the whole story.

This destruction ram was used to destroy cylinders. A hose carried cylinder contents to a neutralizing bath.

The team reported to the command post and staging area, which had been moved 600 feet upwind. Contaminated gear was placed at the east side of the area and unused gear was assembled on the west side.

During this time the sheriffs department had evacuated the air park area to the south and west, and other residents were told to prepare for evacuation. The weather bureau was asked to keep us advised of wind and weather conditions. Ribbons were also placed to show us constant wind direction at the scene.

The Environmental Protection Agency was notified. Chuck Ramsay, head of the hazardous materials response team of the Virginia Office of Emergency and Energy Services, arrived 25 minutes after being notified. State police assistance arrived shortly after.

Another team went back inside the building at 9:04 to attempt to seal any leaks in the destruction ram and drum. After this, at 11:24, officials agreed to stop further action until daylight. The area remained evacuated and secured by police.

The next morning

Work continued at 7 a.m. Interviews with the company owner and others did not reveal to us the chemical involved. Worse, we learned that several rescue squad members who had been released from the hospital were getting sick again, complaining of seizures, depression, confusion, headaches and gory dreams.

In the afternoon crews reentered the building to carefully obtain gas of liquid samples from within the ram. They were successful, but one state “expert” had asked the team to collect the samples in ordinary glass Mason jars. Another lab was then asked to bring in more appropriate containers for the obviously lethal material.

More questions arose over who should perform the investigation of the incident. The person representing the agency thought responsible deferred, saying that a determination had to be made of criminal activity. If criminal activity was involved, the state police would be responsible. Who would make the determination? The head of the Virginia Division of Hazardous Waste Management was brought to the scene. He said his agency lawyer would have to rule on jurisdiction. Certain violations found earlier were discussed. When I asked whether they were criminal, I was again told that the lawyer would have to make a determination.

Collected samples of the material were flown to a lab in Richmond and to the National Bureau of Standards outside of Washington, DC. Unfortunately, the building owner escorted the sample to NBS and failed to report the results until the next day. Then at 6:57 p.m. that Friday evening, the Richmond lab reported its findings: diborane, hexaborane and pentaborane.

The Scene:

Hanover County, Va., has about 50,000 population in 467 square miles. It is 15 miles north of Richmond.

The county is served by a fire department with a paid county chief, deputy chief and fire marshal. The department has 48 volunteer officers among the 315 volunteer personnel. They operate 11 fire stations with 57 pieces of apparatus. Three volunteer rescue squads are separate organizations also serving the county.

The Hanover Industrial Air Park is in the southern part of the county, 5 miles from the nearest fire company. It has over 200 businesses of all kinds and Is bordered by a small airport. Interstate 95 and a 200-facility campground.

On Saturday morning we found 10 inches of new snow dumped on the area. At 11:20 a.m, personnel from CECOS International, Inc., of New York arrived. They had been called in to assist in the disposal and cleanup of the cylinders and the destruction ram By now we had learned that a cylinder that apparently contained pentaborane was still inside the destruction ram. It was obvious that a hole had been punched into the cylinder, and the remains of pentaborane had been released into the inside of the ram.

Because of the weather’s severity, no further action occurred during the day other than to make recovery plans for the next day. Of course, the state police continued their investigation.

At 7:30 a.m Sunday, preparations began for recovery and cleanup operations. The state highway department had cleared all the roads of the snow accumulation The fire department and rescue squad assembled at the command post and were given instructions on what was being planned and what their roles would be. Communications were established between all fire department, rescue squad and police personnel. Equipment checks were made on all breathing apparatus and entry suits. Spare air bottles were brought in to ensure sufficient air supplies during recovery and cleanup operations. Strips of ribbons were fastened to telephone poles in the area to show us constant wind direction. The sheriff s department evacuated everyone to the south and southwest (downwind) of the incident.

The plan was that the team, led by jim Sutherland of CECOS, would open the destruction ram, remove the cylinder inside and then place the cylinder into a caustic bath in hopes of neutralizing it.

At 6:40 p.m., however, when the cylinder was placed into the caustic bath a very violent reaction occurred, even though only the tip of the cylinder (about the size of a pencil) actually touched the bath. The cylinder was placed back into the ram and the ram was sealed and secured tightly. Operations were suspended because of darkness at 6:50 p.m.

Preparations were again made on Monday to try to neutralize the cylinder. However, since it was a regular business day for all businesses in the area, it was decided not to begin recovery until 3 p.m.

I personnally went door to door to advise businesses that the south and southwestern part of the air park would be evacuated again at 3 p.m. While many businessmen were upset about the inconvenience of the evacuation, all were very pleased to be informed on what was actually going on.

Wind change

At 2:15 p.m., I noticed that a piece of ribbon that I had put on my car’s antenna was pointing to the north-northeast, which indicated a wind direction change. The weather bureau confirmed the change. Then, an evacuation of the north, northeastern and northwestern portions of the air park had to be made.

At 5:01 p.m. we were then advised by CECOS personnel, after their consultation with a company that had once produced pentaborane, that it was too risky to try to neutralize the cylinder inside the ram.

We were then advised to transport the entire destruction ram, with the cylinder inside, to a military facility and to destroy both by detonation. At this time, arrangements were made to transport the destruction ram to Fort A. P. Hill in the neighboring county, some 30 miles away. The ram was loaded into a dump truck and surrounded by 8 tons of sand. Fire apparatus, ambulances and police units were prepared to escort the truck to Fort A. P. Hill.

Unfortunately, at 10:15 p.m., I was informed that authorities at Fort A. P. Hill would not allow us to bring the ram to that facility. Further operations were suspended at 10:38 p.m., while state officials continued attempts to get permission to proceed to Fort A. P. Hill.

I arrived at the scene again at 9:15 a m. Tuesday. I was told that Kim Anderson, coordinator of the state Office of Emergency and Energy Services, was briefing Governor Charles Robb with reference to our problems in finding a disposal site

Negotiations continued for the remainder of the day, when finally at 5:10 p.m. I was informed that approval had been gained to transport the ram to Fort A. P. Hill for destruction. Still, hours went by as we waited for documents to be signed by federal, state and local authorities, a condition that had to be met before we could begin the transportation.


Pentaborane is a clear, colorless, very poisonous flammable liquid. It was formerly used as an experimental rocket fuel and is rarely used today— making it subject to improper disposal anywhere. According to Dr. Lorene Garrettson, medical director for the Central Virginia Poison Center at MCV, “This country has sufficient pentaborane now to sustain its present use for the next 3000 years.

One reference book states: “Vapors from these fuels are highly toxic and can cause damage to the eyes, lungs and respiratory tract as well as systemic effects. The systemic effects are not completely understood. Central nervous system excitation is manifested by tremors and convulsions but depression may be observed in other cases. There are, cardiovascular effects including changes in heart rate and blood pressure; in severe poisoning, blood pressure may be very high and later fall to shock levels. Though the odor of these vapors is objectionable, odor should not be relied upon as sufficient warning of danger. However, the converse is true: when an odor is detected, an immediate hazard exists.”

As Dr. Garrettson said, “If you can smell it, you’ve had it; you’re going to be sick.”

At 10:30 p.m., the documents were signed and were delivered to Fort A. P. Hill at 11:06 p.m. At 11:30 p.m., County Administrator Allan T. Williams advised me via radio to proceed to Fort A. P. Hill.

Following a predetermined route, a convoy consisting of fire apparatus, an ambulance, the state’s mobile hazardous materials response unit, the truck loaded with the ram, and my vehicle, escorted by several state police cars, traveled to Fort A. P. Hill, arriving at 12:27 a.m. Wednesday. At 3:45 a.m., the destruction ram with the cylinder inside was destroyed.

The remainder of Wednesday and during Thursday the area of detonation was searched for remaining debris. All pieces were washed, declared safe by the state health department and transported away.

Back at Environmental Laboratories, all remaining cylinders found lying on the ground were packaged, identified and prepared for transportation to a disposal site in New York. At 11 a.m. I was advised that the truck loaded with the remaining cylinders had left Hanover County.

Investigations of this incident, which left one dead and 18 hospitalized, have continued. Questions regarding the origin of the pentaborane and how it was transported, stored and handled have all been considered. Answers will probably not be fully known until we go to court. It seems that the cylinders had been removed for analysis and disposal from a dump site where construction of the james River Facility was under way.

Lessons learned

  • The fire department should have been dispatched with the first ambulance.
  • The incident points out how important it is for everyone involved – fire departments, rescue squads, police, hospital personnel and other outside agencies, etc. — to expand their training for handling hazardous materials incidents. And it should be a joint effort because that’s how we respond to the emergency in the field. Planning, practice and critiques should be done together.
  • Personal safety on the scene must be constantly stressed, and we all may need to review very carefully our methods in approaching hazardous materials incidents. The ambulance squads now have SCBA.
  • A more clearer determination must be made sooner about which agency and personnel are responsible for a particular type of incident. Any time spent trying to determine responsibility (consulting with lawyers) during the actual emergency is absurd.
  • Persons not involved in emergency services should not be responsible for escorting critical items like chemical samples to a lab unless accompanied by someone from the emergency services. This is to make certain that important information reaches the emergency services.
  • After having so much trouble getting permission to destroy the ram at the federal facility, I recommend that plans be drawn up to locate more suitable sites for disposal of such chemicals in the future.
  • Telephones should have been installed close to the command post for this extended operation rather than using the phones inside the affected building.
  • We still don’t know very much about pentaborane. Physicians found it difficult to treat the victims, one of whom died, because of the many unknowns. But research with these victims will be continuing for months.
  • We must share our experiences with others, especially where we saw weaknesses, so we can improve our emergency services for the future.

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