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Workers Ran for Blocks to Sanctuary in Restaurant to Escape Ominous Cloud

Times Staff Writer

When the workers on the graveyard shift at a Commerce paper factory saw a fat dirty-brown cloud heading toward them early Saturday, they knew exactly what to do. They fled to the Jack-In-The-Box Family Restaurant several blocks away.

In recent months, dodging toxic clouds has become routine for them. And they are furious.

Seven employees of the Kirk Paper Co. were hospitalized Saturday after dashing through a low-lying toxic cloud that was triggered by a chemical fire at Grow Group Inc., a nearby pool supply company. All complained of nausea, chest pain and breathing problems.

One worker was released from Santa Marta Hospital in Los Angeles and two workers remained in stable condition late Saturday. Four other men were treated at County-USC Medical Center.

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About 60 people were in the warehouse at 6550 E. Washington Blvd. when those in the back smelled the acrid fumes shortly after midnight Friday. One of those was Thomas David, 39, of Huntington Park, who remains hospitalized at Santa Marta Hospital.

He hopped on his forklift to become a toxic-age Paul Revere.

“I started racing down the aisles real fast,” David said. “I got to the front of the loading dock and started telling everyone there was a spill.”

Workers tried to stop the slow-moving cloud by closing the warehouse’s huge bay doors, but they only managed to shut three before the foul-smelling cloud billowed inside. As workers ran into the darkness toward the restaurant, some supervisors, covering their faces with their hands, shut another door before escaping.

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This is the third time this year that the paper workers have fled because of chemical spills at Grow Group Inc., whose officials said they plan to make safety improvements. The latest chemical spill was two weeks ago. The employees designated the Jack-In-The-Box as a safe place to rendezvous the first time and keep returning.

About 80% of the workers felt sick when they arrived at the restaurant, said Bryan Bernard, 31, of Covina, who talked from his bed at Santa Marta Hospital. Their symptoms abated, but then worsened as the cloud eventually enveloped the restaurant. Paramedics gave oxygen to dozens of the workers.

The employees are fed up with the frequent chemical emergencies, said Bernard. “It’s bound to happen again,” Bernard predicted.

“God forbid if anybody would die. It’s got us scared. Anytime we smell anything funny we get nervous.”

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