South city warehouse fire

A fire rages out of control in a warehouse after walls collapsed during a five-alarm fire in St. Louis Wednesday. Nearly 200 St. Louis firefighters battled the warehouse containing numerous paper products and nearly 200,000 candles. Photo by Bill Greenblat/UPI

Rebecca Rivas, reporter for the St. Louis American, is on maternity leave but wrote about her experience navigating the health hazards posed after the warehouse fire at 3937 Park Ave., which began November 15 at about 10 a.m.

In July, I covered the devastating fire at the historic Clemens Mansion in North St. Louis city. The residents in the surrounding neighborhood were angry that they couldn't get any answers from the health department or mayor's office about the toxic air and materials that resulted from the fire. In response to the residents’ criticism, the city held a community meeting a week later with several experts and health officials. They promised that next time they would be on the scene immediately to address residents’ concerns. They promised to post updates to their website and be more active on social media and news outlets to spread that message. They promised a hotline. They made lots and lots of promises. All were broken this week with the warehouse fire in South city at 3937 Park Ave.

Like those in North city, my family experienced the fear of living among hazardous smoke and the frustration of getting no response to our calls and questions about what we should do.

Wednesday was a beautiful fall day, and I spent several hours outside – like many others in the areas around the fire. It wasn't until around 4 p.m. that I noticed the smoke in the sky traveling over Tower Grove Park, while on a walk with my newborn and toddler. My husband said he briefly saw on Facebook that there was a fire at a warehouse. But no one said anything about health concerns.

Later after we had already put the boys to bed, we heard that the fire department declared that the smoke was hazardous and everyone should shut off their HVAC systems. The message was brief, and they didn't say how to get updates or more information.

Do we wake up the boys and head to grandma’s? Do we stay and just trust their advice that we're safe if we stay inside? We checked on every social media and news outlet for information. No statements from the mayor's office or health department. No hotlines to call with concerns.

Hands-off approach

Trying to get information, I texted Koran Addo, the mayor's spokesman, at 9:53 p.m. on Wednesday, asking, “Is there someone from the health department answering questions about the health concerns of the hazardous smoke?” He responded that he would have Thomas Zink, the mayor's medical consultant and senior advisor to the health department, call me tomorrow. Of course, he thought I meant as a reporter and not a resident. I didn't have time to clarify.

The next morning I woke up with a huge headache, and the air outside smelled toxic. So we packed up and headed west. My husband spent all morning calling the health department and mayor's office trying to figure out what was going on. He got no response, (and he wouldn't until Friday afternoon.)

I decided to take Addo’s offer and talk to Zink on Thursday. He finally called me at 1 p.m. In our conversation, it seemed like Zink kept minimizing the health department’s responsibility to be involved – when promises after this summer’s fire were to do the opposite.

He said the fire department’s air testing had found carbon monoxide in the air, and people should stay inside. And they had no indication that there were any toxic materials inside the warehouse that would release poisonous gas.

“We are confident the contents of the warehouse isn't going to bring us any surprises,” Zink said.

I asked about the large amounts of citronella candles and Styrofoam, which is toxic when burned. He said they rely on the fire department to do all testing, and their job is to monitor the emergency rooms to see if there is an increase in patients coming in to be treated for symptoms from the fire. And he hadn't seen an increase.

He said that no other testing was being done. The EPA had reached out to offer its services if necessary, but that they planned on waiting until the fire was put out to bring them in.

I asked why the health department isn't putting out a phone number for residents to call, as promised after the mansion fire. He said he'd remind the health department director about that.

No more apologies

At that point the fire was still burning, and smoke still noticeable from what people were posting on social media. People were posting that they had headaches, sore throats and asthma attacks. These people weren't going to the emergency room, and no one was telling them that carbon monoxide was found in the air. Nothing came from the mayor on her social media or in a media release about this serious health concern – despite people calling her office.

On Friday, someone at the mayor's office finally told my husband to call Melba Moore, the health department director. He called and left another message. Then he saw that the health department had posted something on their website about the carbon monoxide and a number for Heather Gasama, who would be answering questions from the community.

He called Gasama, and she said that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was now coming in. And maybe we should wait to hear back from her about the EPA results before returning to the city.

I know many families with young ones. Why don't they know this?

Why did my husband get Moore’s number – the director and someone who would never have a minute to call him back? Why didn't the mayor urge that Gasama’s number was included in every news broadcast immediately after the fire started?

Why did the health department wait to bring in the EPA to test until after the fire was out, when people were reporting potentially hazardous debris in their neighborhoods on Thursday? Why was the health department only waiting to see who went to the emergency room, instead of trying to prevent these visits through even the simplest forms of community outreach?

A friend works for an elementary school, and several students there had asthma attacks on Thursday. Because kids were still playing outside on Thursday. Gasama called later on Friday to say the carbon monoxide had cleared, and it was safe to come home. We greatly appreciated her help.

Honestly, the last thing I want to be doing during maternity leave is writing articles. But it's important to my family, like it is to every other family in the city, to feel safe. We want to feel that we can trust our officials to lead us through crisis situations. When you have to make fast decisions that impact the people you love, you want someone there to help you make informed choices. That didn't happen this summer with the Clemens fire. It didn't happen again this week. 

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