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Evacuees Return After Gas Lifts : Aftermath: Many residents are left exhausted by night's ordeal, blamed on broken gauge in plant.


LA HABRA — A noxious ammonia cloud has lifted from a La Habra neighborhood, but fearful residents were wondering Tuesday how a little-noticed cold-storage plant could churn out the foul-smelling chemical that forced nearly 1,000 residents from their homes and sent eight people to hospitals.

Investigators believe they have an answer. Fire officials say the accident occurred about 6:30 p.m. Monday when a gauge broke off a pipe connected to an ammonia tank used in refrigeration, causing about 100 gallons of the liquid to leak. Once the chemical hits the air it forms a gaseous cloud.

Vibration from constant expansion and contraction in the aging pipe caused the gauge to snap off, Fire Department Capt. Fred Rodriguez said.

At the Christian Salvesen plant Tuesday, it appeared to be business as usual with a steady stream of trucks arriving to make deliveries at the nondescript, tan and beige building.

But just around the corner, reminders of the accident were everywhere. Dozens of exhausted residents, who were allowed to return to their homes early Tuesday, sat on their front porches and lawns recalling the torturous night. Most had not slept more than a few hours .

More than 300 of the evacuated residents spent the night at an emergency shelter at the La Habra Community Center.

"I'm so tired but I still can't sleep," said resident Pie Hodges, who began watering her front lawn on 2nd Street shortly after arriving home from the shelter.

"I just hope nothing like this ever happens again," she said.

The neighborhood is a mix of businesses and single-family homes and apartment buildings occupied by mostly low-income families. Many residents said they had never given a second thought to the plant.

"This is the first time anything like this has happened in this city," said Ricardo Vallejo, a 10-year resident, who said his head ached from the odor. "We went to the park about 6 a.m. and there were hundreds of people lying on the grass. They were so tired. It was the worst thing that ever happened.

"All the people are kind of scared now. The owners, the management and the maintenance people have to learn from this," said Vallejo, 26.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District, which is investigating the incident, had considered possible regulations of ammonia several years ago out of concern for its dangerous cloud-forming potential, but found that public support appeared to be lacking, a spokesman said.

Concentrated liquid ammonia is commonly used in commercial refrigeration and is considered more dangerous than its watered-down household counterpart, air officials said. If inhaled, it can irritate the eyes, nose and throat and cause vomiting and other health problems.

The 102,000-square-foot La Habra warehouse stores frozen and other chilled foods for major manufacturers and retailers, said Cyriel Godderie, president of the U.S. subsidiary of Scotland-based Christian Salvesen.

Godderie called the ammonia leak one of the worst accidents the 14-year-old subsidiary has encountered. The facility's ammonia tank contains about 10,000 gallons, and 1% escaped in the accident, he said.

"We've had technical problems here and there, but there's never been anything of the size of last night," said Godderie, adding that he did not know why the gauge malfunctioned.

Several workers were in the 24-hour warehouse at the time the leak was detected about 6:30 p.m. but none were injured, authorities said.

Nine people were treated for breathing problems, vomiting and other ailments. They included three Anaheim firefighters who were taken to Anaheim General Hospital and kept overnight for observation, La Habra Fire Chief Mike McGroarty said.

Also injured were two truck drivers attempting to make a delivery and four bystanders and residents, including a 12-year-old child, McGroarty said.

The leak was repaired about 1:30 a.m., but residents weren't allowed back home for another six hours, by which time the ammonia had dissipated and the AQMD deemed the air safe.

Teams consisting of county and state health officials, the company's staff and inspectors from the businesses that store their food at Christian Salvesen converged on the scene to check the foods for contamination.

Vegetables exposed to the ammonia will have to be disposed of, probably in a county landfill, officials said. At least 20,000 pounds of vegetables might be discarded, said Jim Huston, assistant director of environmental health for the Orange County Health Care Agency.

Named for its Norwegian founder, Christian Salvesen began as a shipping and whaling company in Scotland about 150 years ago and grew into a conglomerate with holdings that include cold storage, food processing and home building.

In Orange County, Salvesen owns two cold storage warehouses, in La Habra and Brea. The New Jersey-based subsidiary, established in 1981 when Salvesen bought out Merchants Refrigerating Co., includes 70 warehouses throughout the country, Godderie said.

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