- Firefighters get a call that a chlorine canister put on a recycling plant's conveyor belt had burst
- They arrive, without a hazmat team, to find that up to 30 people had been exposed to the gas
- 13 were transported to four area hospitals, and eight are in critical condition, a fire official says
(CNN)"It's a fire chief's worst nightmare."
That's how Spokane, Washington, Assistant Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer described crews arriving Wednesday knowing that dangerous levels of chlorine gas were in the air, people inside were in desperate need of help, and there was no hazardous materials team on their tail to make sure it was safe to go in.
But the firefighters went in anyway to find up to 30 people had been exposed to the toxic gas.
"When we got there, we had to focus on saving lives," Schaeffer said.
While most of the roughly 50 people then working at the plant were treated at the scene, eight were in critical condition at local hospitals on Wednesday night, Schaeffer said.
'A huge cloud'
The incident began around 10 a.m. (1 p.m. ET), when firefighters got a call to go to a Pacific Steel recycling plant after a canister placed on a conveyor belt "expelled chlorine in a rapid fashion, making a huge cloud," Schaeffer said.
Eight people were "immediately ... overcome," he said.
Spokane firefighters went into the fray before a hazardous material unit could arrive, eventually helping transfer 13 people to four different hospitals in Spokane County. Schaeffer said no firefighters became sick during the operation.
The incident led to the evacuation of 17 buildings, most of them businesses, in a Spokane industrial park as about 120 firefighters from around the city responded, said Schaeffer. That evacuation was lifted as of Wednesday night, except for right around the recycling plant.
"This has been a really difficult day," he said "We were dealing with a chemical we don't usually deal with and it was really hot here, over 100 degrees."
Potential health damage
Potential health damage due to exposure to chlorine gas varies with intensity and length of the exposure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Victims can experience breathing and other respiratory problems, which may take as little as a few hours to clear up after mild exposure to chlorine gas, or days for recovery after severe exposure.
Symptoms range from irritation of nose and throat to fluid in the lungs, and, in extreme cases, lung collapse.
Chlorine gas can also burn other tissue like skin and eyes.