ELIZABETHTON — At least six people were taken to Sycamore Shoals Hospital late Friday night after they came into contact with hazardous materials believed to have been associated with a methamphetamine lab, according to Carter County Sheriff Chris Mathes.
A large section of downtown Elizabethton near the Carter County Jail was shut down around 10:30 p.m. while emergency personnel and hazardous materials teams worked to clear the scene after a deputy collapsed in the jail’s processing area while bringing in Brandon Lewis, 24, of Holston View Drive, Elizabethton, who was arrested on possession of drug paraphernalia charges during a routine stop in the Stoney Creek community.
“What we believe has happened to this point is this individual, who was arrested on drug charges, has been in a meth lab,” Mathes said.
The harsh fumes from the unknown chemical substance permeated the man’s clothing and skin to the point where the fumes overpowered the officer, leading to an immediate quarantine of the area, Mathes said.
The Elizabethon Fire Department, Elizabethton Police Department and the Carter County Emergency Management Agency were among the other agencies who responded to the jail.
The contaminants were quickly gathered and secured by haz-mat crews, and the jail’s ventilation system was shut down in order to keep any of the fumes from spreading.
Since the man was only brought into the processing area, Mathes said there weren’t any other areas of the jail believed to have been contaminated. He said there wasn’t any reason to believe the inmates or other jail personnel were exposed to whatever the substance was. The ventilation system was reopened and all areas of the jail were fully functioning Saturday afternoon.
Mathes said at least five emergency personnel — including deputies, a jail nurse and other officials — had to be taken to Sycamore Shoals for treatment and decontamination. At least four or five others had to be decontaminated at the jail.
Lewis was also taken to the hospital for treatment.
Carter County EMA Director Andrew Worley said the symptoms of those taken to the hospital included tingling lips, vomiting, nausea and loss of consciousness.
“Several people who saw it themselves thought these people were having symptoms of a heart attack,” he said.
All six people taken to the hospital were treated, decontaminated and released by early Saturday morning, according to Mountain States Health Alliance Vice President Ed Herbert.
Once at the hospital, a “Code Alpha” was issued at 11:30 p.m., prompting the quarantine of the emergency department in order prevent the substance from spreading. While uncommon, the initiation of a “Code Alpha” is essential whenever there is a concern that an unknown substance or chemical contamination has occurred, according to Sycamore Shoals Hospital CEO Dwayne Taylor.
“We have to be ready for that because of Nuclear Fuel Services down in Unicoi County, and then with the growing spread of meth labs in this part of the world. It’s something that’s definitely on our radar and something that we run drills on and practice for,” he said.
Taylor said the “Code Alpha” was cleared by 2 a.m. Saturday.
With the contamination occurring near the jail, downtown Elizabethton and a heavily-traveled highway, Worley said it really couldn’t have happened at a worse place.
“Logistically, it is kind of worst case scenario, because you’re right by a major highway. Had this happened just a few feet away, we would’ve had to shut down a major state highway for this area, so, no, this is about as bad a place as you can have it,” he said.
Worley said they won’t know what type of substance they were dealing with until a series of tests are conducted on the contaminated materials.
While the substance hasn’t been identified, Mathes said the “domino effect” created by hazardous materials often associated with the manufacture of methamphetamine are just as problematic for officers and emergency personnel as they are for the people working with the drugs.
“It is a broken record, and law enforcement, we’re all feeling the effects of it, all the way through tonight. It hits home. It’s a very scary situation and could be life-threatening,” he said.
Since the arresting officer was one of the people treated at the hospital, Mathes said details regarding the traffic stop were not readily available. He said there aren’t any other arrests suspected at this time. According to officials, Lewis posted bond and was released from the Carter County Jail. No additional charges against Lewis have been made at this time.