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Emergency Rescue of 39 Midshipmen from USMMA Overcome with Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

On Sunday evening at 9:10, a call came into the Alert Fire Company from an unidentified woman saying that at least 15 people on the United States Merchant Marine Academy campus were “feeling sick from a gas leak.” The Alerts rushed to the scene joined by the Vigilant’s three ambulances. It became a joint command incident headed by Alert Chief Ray Plakstis who controlled the scene and Vigilant Chief Laurence Jacobs who directed the medical interventions.

Chief Plakstis said that the 39 Alert firefighters who responded to the call quickly established that the source of the problem was carbon monoxide poisoning that stemmed from a faulty water heater in Barry Hall, but the gas had also spread to Jones Hall as well because the two dorms are connected by a sub-basement.

Academy staff and the Alerts did an accounting of all the cadets in the buildings and discovered that one was missed. Two room-by-room searches were conducted and the missing cadet was found sleeping in his room and was awakened and evaluated.

Chief Jacobs told the Record that the EMTs triaged 150 cadets who were experiencing some symptoms, such as headaches and nausea, to determine the level of poisoning. The Vigilants own three handheld oximeters, the Rad-57, that quickly and easily measures oxygen levels in the blood (without puncturing the skin) and indicates on a scale between 0-100 readings for carbon monoxide. Readings came in as high as 27 percent which Chief Jacobs said were “serious, but not immediately life threatening.” Those cadets with higher readings were sent to the Nassau University Medical Center and Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx that have hyperbaric chambers for treatment. One was air-lifted to Jacobi. The other hyperbaric chamber is at Stony Brook, but no one was sent there because of timing and distance. The cadets with lower readings were sent to North Shore and Winthrop Hospitals for follow-up treatment.

EMT units from the Academy, Manhasset-Lakeville, Port Washington, Garden City Park, New Hyde Park, Williston Park, Nassau County Police and the Nassau County Police Aviation Unit were on the scene. The Alert Fire Company monitored the air quality levels in both dorms and by 11:30 p.m. cadets were allowed to return to their barracks. The Nassau County Fire Marshal’s and the Nassau County HazMat team also came to the scene and concurred with the Alerts that the buildings were safe.

Chief Jacobs said, “All of the cadets treated were conscious and alert and we expect good outcomes for everyone...It was quite a scene last night, but it was very organized...all the first responders knew what to do and we worked well together.”

Chief Plakstis said, “It was really lucky that this occurred early in the evening and not in the middle of the night…We might not have had such a good outcome.”

Captain Lee Genser from the Manhasset-Lakeville Fire District’s Ambulance Unit said,   “The lesson to take home from this incident is to make sure that you have working carbon monoxide detectors on every level of your home.  Had the cadets been sleeping when the carbon monoxide started leaking, this could have been a lot worse.  Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless, tasteless gas that is impossible to detect without a special carbon monoxide detector, not a smoke detector.  Symptoms of carbon monoxide exposure can include headaches, dizziness, nausea, and severe exposure could be fatal.” Prices for the life-saving CO detectors begin as low as $17 per unit.

USMMA spokesperson Kim Riddle informed the Record that all midshipmen were able to attend regularly scheduled classes on Monday morning.