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12,000 in Simi Valley Flee From Chlorine Gas Cloud

Times Staff Writer

An estimated 12,000 people were evacuated from their homes and businesses here Thursday and traffic was snarled for hours when a square-mile-sized cloud of potentially lethal chlorine gas leaked from a textile manufacturing plant and hovered over the city.

Twenty people, including five firefighters and a Ventura County sheriff’s deputy, were treated at Simi Valley Adventist Hospital for inhaling the toxic chlorine gas. Two people, county Firefighter Wayne Ferber and Simi Valley resident Debra Ross, were admitted and listed in stable condition late Thursday night. The gas leaked from Travelin’ West Textiles Inc., a firm that was in the process of closing down after a long legal fight with the city over the dumping of dyes and chemicals into the sewer system, authorities said.

Sparse winds and low clouds kept the gas from dissipating throughout the day. But, after firefighters capped the leak about 6 p.m., the cloud began to clear. At 7 p.m., the evacuation was lifted and residents began returning to their homes. A 3-mile stretch of the Simi Valley Freeway, which had been closed during the day, was reopened.

Ventura County officials will inspect the site today.

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The chlorine gas began to form a green-tinged, yellowish-white cloud about 7:45 a.m. as it leaked from a 30-ton cylinder located on the grounds of Travelin’ West at 45 W. Easy St., said Denise Beaumont, a spokeswoman for the Ventura County Fire Department.

The Fire Department said about 12,000 residents and workers had been evacuated during the day. Red Cross shelters were set up at local high schools.

Simi Valley residents, for the most part, took the evacuation calmly.

About 2,500 students and residents of nearby mobile home parks were brought to an evacuation center at Simi Valley High School. Throughout the afternoon and early evening, parents and relatives drove up to the school to claim children and family members.

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Larry Petitta Jr., 30, helped his grandmother, Zola Browning, 78, when police came to the Villa Del Arroyo mobile home park, urging residents to leave. “I just filled up her portable oxygen tank and grabbed warm coats and hats,” he said, as he sat with his grandmother and father, Larry Petitta Sr., eating pizza in the school cafeteria. His grandmother has a blood gas disorder that requires constant oxygen administration, he said.

Samantha Wong, a 7th-grader at Sinaloa Junior High School, and her little sister Seretha, were waiting for their father to pick them up.

On the evacuation bus ride to Simi Valley High School, she said: “We were fooling around--I was helping a friend write his last will and testament. He left it all to his brother.”

Catherine Tresek said she was at home with her 13-month-old daughter, Victoria, when she heard about the chlorine leak.

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“My mother called me from Oxnard . . . they broke into one of her soaps and said Simi Valley had a gas cloud. So I called 911 to find out what was going on,” said Tresek, 32.

A short time later “we saw police pull up and notify everyone to leave,” Tresek said.

Two of the injured firefighters were members of a hazardous materials unit who had approached the leaking cylinder early in the day to attempt to cap the leak but were repelled when a strong green stream of the gas spurted from the cylinder. The force of the leak tore open the firefighters’ protective suits.

Fire Department dispatcher Annie Ironside said the chlorine storage cylinder had reportedly been emptied on Tuesday but there was enough residue remaining in the container to form the cloud after leaking.

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Deputy City Manager Jay Corey said the city and Travelin’ West had engaged in a two-year battle over the firm’s dumping of dyes and other chemicals used in textile manufacturing into the city’s sewer system.

He said the city cited the firm several times in 1987 and 1988 for the illegal dumping and then sought a court injunction stopping the practice. Corey said the city recently won a cease-and-desist order requiring Travelin’ West to stop discharging dyes and chemicals into the sewers by Jan. 1.

Corey said that two weeks ago, Travelin’ West informed the city that it would close the plant and move elsewhere. Corey said authorities believe that the firm was in the process of shutting down but it was unclear whether the chlorine tank was emptied Tuesday as part of that move. Travelin’ West officials could not be located for comment.

Paul LaBonte, a member of a local homeowners group called Help End Local Pollution, said Thursday’s incident dramatically points to the need for better controls of toxic substances in Simi Valley.

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“We don’t want toxic substances in our community,” LaBonte said. “This whole incident makes it very poignant. The city dodged a severe bullet. Had it been another day, when the wind was blowing, we could have killed a lot of people.”

The chlorine leak forced police and the California Highway Patrol to close all lanes of the Simi Valley Freeway between College View Avenue in Moorpark to the west and Sycamore Drive to the east. The closure caused traffic to back up on the freeway and the city’s surface streets throughout the day as motorists looked for other routes through the city and through the Santa Susana Mountains to Los Angeles.

Authorities initially evacuated all homes and industrial businesses in the immediate vicinity of Easy Street and Madera Road.

But because of the danger posed by chlorine gas, police and fire officials expanded the mandatory evacuation area when the vapor cloud did not dissipate. The larger zone included the area south of the freeway, west of Erringer Road and north of Los Angeles Avenue.

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A “precautionary evacuation zone” in which residents were advised to leave their homes included the entire northwest section of the city, north from Royal Avenue and west from Erringer.

Chlorine is one of the most common chemicals produced in the United States. A dense, yellow-green gas that is highly irritating to the eyes, skin and lungs, it was used as a poison gas in World War I. In addition to use in killing bacteria in swimming pools and drinking water, chlorine is used as a bleaching agent in paper and textile manufacturing, and as a building block for other chemicals.

When inhaled, chlorine gas can cause choking and coughing. If breathed in sufficient quantities, it can cause pulmonary edema, or the buildup of fluids in the lung, which can be fatal.

In September, thousands of Southeast Los Angeles County residents were evacuated when a cloud containing a chlorine compound escaped from a plant producing chlorine tablets for swimming pools. The next day more residents were evacuated when authorities discovered a second cloud drifting from the plant.

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Contributing to this story were staff writers Barbara Koh and Carlos V. Lozano in Simi Valley, and Tracey Kaplan, Myron Levin, and T.W. McGarry in Los Angeles.


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