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Mercury was touched by bystanders

Officials said at least four subway passengers were exposed to it, but none appeared to have gotten sick. Search is on for man who spilled it.

January 20, 2007|Andrew Blankstein and Jean Guccione | Times Staff Writers

At least four subway passengers either touched or stepped on six ounces of mercury that a man dropped onto a downtown L.A. subway platform, with one commuter finally alerting authorities about the spill eight hours after it occurred.

Among those exposed to the mercury was a woman who lives in downtown Los Angeles. She got the mercury on her red house slippers minutes after the man dropped it, said Los Angeles County Sheriff's Det. Danny Regalado.

Video from a camera in the Pershing Square station also shows several people looking down at the viscous fluid. At least two men can be seen stooping to touch it.

The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority has come under harsh criticism for its handling of the Dec. 22 incident, in which a man in a sports jacket dropped the hazardous element on the platform -- then used an MTA intercom to say "I spilled mercury."

For reasons the MTA is investigating, workers did not go to check out the report.

Roger Snoble, the MTA's chief executive officer, said in an interview Friday that a second person reported the spill that night but did not specify the substance to the operator. The information was passed on to a night supervisor, who alerted a cleanup crew.

But, again, no one came to examine the substance -- to the dismay of Snoble. "If it was a soft drink spill, it still should not have been eight hours," he said.

It wasn't until 6:51 a.m. on Dec. 23 that sheriff's officials were informed. A Red Line commuter on his way home noticed the mercury in the subway. He reported it to deputies in the transit division, prompting the clean up and station evacuation process, Regalado said.

By the time deputies arrived eight minutes later, two MTA maintenance workers were trying to mop up the substance, apparently unaware of its potential toxicity, Regalado said.

The revelations raise new questions about why the MTA -- which has boasted about its post-9/11 readiness -- didn't respond to the spill.

"On the night of the 22nd, we definitely had a lapse," Snoble said.

Officials said none of those exposed appeared to have been sickened by the mercury, which can cause severe health problems if it is inhaled, ingested or comes in contact with an open wound.

The MTA has launched an internal investigation into the incident. But transit officials said they had not yet interviewed the operators who took the spill reports, or their supervisors.

Starting Monday, MTA employees will begin training on how to recognize and deal with hazardous materials, including mercury, Snoble said.

Law enforcement investigators, meanwhile, said they had interviewed at least four people who witnessed the spill, including the woman who walked through it.

They said they had made progress in their investigation but still have no clear idea about the identity of the man suspected of spilling the mercury.

Investigators with the FBI, county sheriff's and Los Angeles police departments say the incident appears to be an accident rather than terrorism, but still want to interview the man.

Dozens of investigators have canvassed community colleges and downtown jewelers, where they believe the man could have obtained the substance.

Authorities this week released video that showed a young man crouching on the subway platform about 10:45 p.m. Dec. 22, before spilling the substance onto the ground.

The man jumped to his feet. He located an MTA intercom, on which officials say he called an operator at the agency's rail operations center and said, "I spilled mercury."

Authorities did not say what, if anything, the operator replied.

Snoble said the MTA had a lot of work to do after the incident. He said he didn't know about response problems to the mercury spill until Thursday morning.

He said MTA employees needed to work more closely with deputies who patrol the stations.

The night of the incident, Snoble said, the video monitoring office was fully staffed, but high-level supervisors never knew about the mercury spill.

*

andrew.blankstein@latimes.com

jean.guccione@latimes.com

Times staff writer Richard Winton contributed to this report.

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