San Francisco

Fumes Sicken Workers at SFO, Prompt Big Response

Fumes from a concrete-cutting machine temporarily overcame two plumbers working in an underground tunnel at San Francisco International Airport, and triggered a 2 1/2-hour search and a robust response by emergency workers for one of the men, an airport official said.

The call came in about 3:30 p.m. Saturday of a possible explosion in a cramped tunnel underneath a space occupied by Gate Gourmet, which prepares an estimated 70 percent of meals served to passengers on outbound flights, said Russell Mackey, the airport's duty manager.

Miguel Wilson and Javier Molina, Mackey said, were working on plumbing underneath the airport's "649 building."

Though it appears the two men were overcome by fumes from the gasoline-powered concrete cutting machine they brought with them, the call initially came in as a tank rupture of some sort, prompting a sizeable response by emergency workers, Mackey said.

"When I heard the machine shutting off, I ran and I saw he was laying down, unconscious," Wilson said.

Molina apparently was overcome by the exhaust fumes, and passed out while Wilson dragged his co-worker to a seemingly safer space, and left the tunnel before he too passed out, Mackey said.

When searchers descended into the cramped tunnel, Molina, who was still disoriented, Mackey said — had crawled away from where his Wilson had left him. The tunnel network, Mackey said, is fairly extensive.

"It took about 2 1/2 hours before the fire department found Molina, crawling toward them," Mackey said. "He was moving, it is a tight space under there, you’re not able to stand up but he was able to move toward the fire fighters." He was taken to a nearby hospital for examination. 

As for the fairly significant emergency response, Mackey said, "We didn't really know what kind of incident we were responding to. The teams all went in with full breathing apparatus just out of an abundance of caution, at that time we didn’t know what had ruptured under the building.”

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