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San Jose's VMC Emergency Room Reopens After Chemical Exposure Scare

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- In a bizarre event that began when two patients contaminated with a toxic chemical arrived at Valley Medical Center Thursday, the South Bay's busiest emergency room shut down for five hours and a Cambrian Park neighborhood evacuated as officials determined the source of the chemical.

Thursday's scenario began at 8:05 a.m. with a 911 call of a possible suicide at the Yucca Avenue home, near Foxworthy and Meridian avenues.

When firefighters arrived, however, they immediately detected an odor and put on their full protective respiratory gear before entering the home. Inside, they found an 18-year-old man unconscious, said San Jose Fire Capt. Steve Alvarado.

Officials later determined the chemical was hydrogen sulfide, a sewer gas by-product that is flammable and toxic in high concentrations.

At the house, firefighters pulled the man outside and with the help of paramedics quickly decontaminated him. They then wrapped him and transferred to Valley Medical Center, along with his mother.

Since officials did not initially know what they were dealing with, they shut down and isolated the emergency room. They deemed 93 people had been potentially exposed to a hazardous chemical and began evaluating and decontaminating them with hot water and soap. Those treated included 37 hospital employees, 46 patients and visitors, four police officers and four firefighters.

Late afternoon, officials announced that the mother and son were not hazardous to the public and the emergency room was re-opened. Meanwhile, the 18-year-old man was in critical condition. His mother also was hospitalized.

It was not clear how the chemical was released in the home, but fire officials said it emanated from inside it. Six houses near the Yucca Avenue home were also temporarily evacuated.

Hospital and emergency services officials took a very conservative approach to the situation because they didn't know what kind of chemical they had been dealing with.

But what was first treated as a significant emergency turned out to be more of a dry run for the hospital and the county's emergency services network.

Hospital spokeswoman Joy Alexiou hailed the response as a "good performance by all. It was a great run by everyone.

Earlier, San Jose fire Capt. Barry Stallard had said it's "better to err on the side of paranoia.''

The mother reportedly said the odor inside their house smelled like "chemicals from a vets office,'' Stallard said. Authorities said it smelled like natural gas.

Carlos Pena said his mother had gone to VMC for a migraine headache, then began vomiting and complaining of stomach pain. She was decontaminated and transferred to another hospital.

The emergency room "looks like something from a movie with all those guys in NASA suits,'' Pena said.

Valley Medical is the busiest hospital in the South Bay and is one of only three trauma centers in Santa Clara County. The closure of its emergency room diverted patients to other hospitals, with most of the load falling on Regional Medical Center and O'Connor Hospital, according to Alexiou.

Dr. S.V. Mahadevan, medical director of the Stanford Hospital emergency department, said the hospital hasn't seen a major increase in patients Thursday morning.

Bay Area News Group Staff Writers Jessie Mangliman, Sandra Gonzales and Jessica Bernstein-Wax contributed to this report. Contact Lisa Fernandez atlfernandez@mercurynews.comor (408) 920-5002.

WHAT IS HYDROGEN SULFIDE?

It is a colorless, flammable gas that smells like rotten eggs, according to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. It occurs naturally in petroleum crude, natural gas, volcanic gases and hot springs. It also occurs when organic matter decompose and breakdown. It is found in human and animal waste.

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