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Anger Lingers in Anaheim Area : Many Still Feel Effects of Fumes but Forgo Help

February 09, 1988|RAY PEREZ and BRAD HANSON | Times Staff Writers

Gregorio Vega was slicing meat at his mother-in-law's small neighborhood market. The afternoon was warm, and the windows and front door of La Primera Market at the corner of North Patt and Julianna streets in Anaheim were open to welcome the unseasonably warm breeze.

Vega remembered the time as being precisely 3:40 p.m. on Thursday, as he stooped over the slabs of meat. He was working alone, Vega said Monday afternoon.

Then he felt a sting in his eyes. He turned around to see smoke throughout the frame building that doubles as a market and Mexican restaurant.

Fumes Spewing

"It smelled like ammonia," he recalled. "My throat got sore, and I started coughing. I thought something in the store was burning."

He ran outside to discover that fumes from the Stepan Co. plant, just 200 yards north of the store on North Patt Street, were spewing into the air. Before the afternoon was over, Vega had vomited three times.

On Monday, he and many of the mostly Latino residents of the 2-block neighborhood still felt pangs from the fumes that swirled in the air around their homes, occupied by about 150 people.

Some have not visited doctors because they are illegals and fear treatment could lead to deportation. Others can't afford medical fees and are unaware that the company has offered to pay medical costs.

A few residents admitted Monday that most of their aches and nausea have disappeared and that they are starting to feel better.

And still others are angry, accusing officials of doing nothing for them when the fumes were spreading through their neighborhood and not checking with them in the days since.

Vega's 17-year-old wife, Rosa Garcia, complained that Fire Department officials raced through the neighborhood from the plant Thursday as they pursued the cloud and never stopped to help those vomiting on the street.

"They could have at least asked if we were all right," she said.

On Monday, Garcia, who is two months' pregnant, and her 14-month-old daughter, Jessica, still had puffy faces and teary eyes. She said her daughter cried throughout Thursday night and has been rubbing her nose since.

"My whole body aches, and I'm concerned about my pregnancy because I don't feel good," she said. "I had no problems with my first pregnancy and no problems with this one until this happened. I can't sleep, and my body aches a lot."

Isauro Ruiz said he and his neighbor, Jose Damasco, were talking in front of their houses on Julianna Street when he spotted the sulfur trioxide fumes escape from the roof of the Stepan Co. plant that manufactures soap.

"It was just a little bit at first," Ruiz said. "Then the tube (of smoke) got larger and larger. It went straight up. I had my wife close the windows and the front door. But my daughter was in the park (100 yards from the plant). She started coughing immediately."

Can Cause Irritation

Sulfur trioxide can cause eye, nose and throat irritation, nausea and skin rashes.

Five days later, Ruiz said, his daughter, Arisela, 3, was still bothered by what she breathed Thursday. As he talked, the brown-eyed girl pranced in the shade of the sidewalk.

"She looks OK now, but at night she has trouble sleeping," the father said. "I watch her when she's sleeping, and she whines and rubs her eyes and nose."

Robert Young, division chief of the Anaheim Fire Department, said Monday that the neighborhood had been contaminated with 6,000 cubic feet of the sulfur trioxide.

Young said firefighters dispatched to the residences near the Stepan Co. plant did not stop at the neighborhood or another south of it, across La Palma Avenue, because the immediate danger had cleared there.

"By the time we got organized, (the smoke) had already dissipated. The original cloud that people had a reaction to had already gone," he said.

Young said that no one was evacuated and that people in the neighborhood were told to see doctors if their symptoms persisted.

But the residents contradicted the Fire Department about getting advice on the afternoon of the incident. Garcia, standing on the porch of her mother's store, was particularly adamant in her criticism.

'Firemen Just Drove By'

"My mother was standing right there," she said pointing to the sidewalk, "and she was vomiting. The firemen just drove by. There were a bunch of kids in the park coughing very badly too. People in the neighborhood are really upset that no one helped them."

An official of UCI Medical Center in Orange said many of the 100 people affected by the toxic fumes had still not sought medical attention, despite persistent teary eyes, sore throats and achy bodies.

Dr. Richard Thomas, who works in the poison unit at UCI, said the symptoms displayed by residents of North Patt and Julianna streets are common in people who experience "major inhalation of a toxic gas."

But, he said, it usually takes no more than two or three days for the symptoms to disappear.

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