BWI ruled odor-free irritant source unknown; Environment officials investigate problem that blocked flights


The air inside Baltimore-Washington International Airport was pronounced clear yesterday -- but clear of what remains a mystery.

State environmental officials and a private company snipped carpet fibers that could trap an odor and sampled air quality in the terminal yesterday, trying to identify the irritant that forced the evacuation Thursday night of 1,500 people from two piers of the airport and sent 12 people to area hospitals.

Results could come today, as the Maryland Department of the Environment and HAI Integrated Building Services of Columbia investigate the cause of something that people said smelled like pepper spray, a substance barred from the concourses.

"We really don't know what it is," said BWI spokeswoman Juliette Wright.

The odor gave waiting passengers watery eyes, irritated throats and nausea. Twenty-two people were treated at the terminal, according to BWI officials. Most of those taken to hospitals suffering from respiratory distress were released Thursday night. The last two were discharged yesterday from North Arundel Hospital.

The smell closed Pier D -- which has 47 of BWI's 65 gates -- at 5: 45 p.m. Thursday, followed by Pier E 90 minutes later. Pier E was closed a short time, but Pier D was closed until 10: 40 p.m. All US Airways flights originate from those sections, and the carrier canceled flight after flight.

By midday yesterday, most passengers were traveling again, said US Airways spokesman Richard Weintraub.

While the stores in the concourses lost several hours of business because of the smell, the crisis was a boon to nearby hotels.

Frank Vento, general manager of the Sheraton International Hotel at BWI, said his 196-room hotel was full.

"We had 30 rooms of US Airways crew members and 30 rooms of passengers. They all checked out today," he said.

The 310-room BWI Marriott Hotel was sold out, a reservations clerk said.

Yesterday, US Airways took calls from disgruntled passengers wanting to know how the airline would compensate them for their inconvenience.

"We will certainly pass on those concerns to our customer representative," Weintraub said.

"Keep in mind this was not a disruption of our creation. It was an action ordered by the airport," he said.

Pub Date: 3/08/97

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