Hazmat scene at Modesto bank: 3 fall ill after man hands teller money

10/19/2012 4:31 PM

10/20/2012 1:12 AM

Six employees of a Modesto bank were hospitalized Friday afternoon after at least three of them broke out in hives shortly after a customer handed a bank teller money wrapped in a paper towel, authorities said.

The man, a customer at Chase Bank at Tully Road and Standiford Avenue, gave a teller a "large amount of money" to deposit in his account about 4 p.m., said Sgt. Brian Findlen of the Modesto Police Department.

Minutes later, the teller broke out with hives and had trouble breathing. She came into contact with two other employees, who then exhibited similar symptoms.

Symptoms included fever and blisters, Findlen said.

It is unknown how many customers were in the bank at the time of the exposure, but local hospitals were aware of the contamination and there were no reports of customers getting sick as of Friday night, said Division Chief Sean Slamon of the Modesto Regional Fire Authority.

The county's Hazardous Materials Unit was called to the scene and the employees inside were isolated. One firefighter in a yellow suit, respirator and rubber boots went inside and turned off the the air-conditioning and heating unit. He then explained to the employees that they would have to go to the bank parking lot, where they would be decontaminated.

One by one, each of them was rinsed off with a fire hose while standing in a blue basin, then moved to a second basin, where they had to take off their clothes and be showered once again. They were given white suits to wear and were escorted to ambulances. Firefighters used a tarp to cover the bank employees while they were in the makeshift shower.

Slamon said all six employees were improving Friday night.

After getting the patients to hospitals, the hazardous materials team then turned its attention what might have caused the outbreak. Two firefighters in "level A suits" entered the bank with sensitive equipment to test for gases, radiation, chemicals and PH levels. The suits are impermeable to liquids and gasses and provide the highest level of protection, Slamon said.

They detected an unknown substance on the money, and at the teller's window where it was deposited. Determining the nature of the substance will require further testing at a lab, Slamon said.

Findlen said detectives believe they have identified the man who brought the paper towel full of contaminated money to the bank, and an investigation into the case is ongoing. No one had been arrested as of Friday night.

Agents with the Federal Bureau of Investigation were on scene temporarily but did not take over the investigation.

The county's hazmat team is made up of members from the Modesto Regional Fire Authority, the Turlock Fire Department, Stanislaus Consolidated Fire and the Department of Environmental Resources. They train for events such as this every month, Slamon said.

Crime scene tape around the bank was taken down at about 9 p.m. and the Chase branch was turned over to the bank manager, who will have a decontamination team clean it before reopening. Whether the bank would be open today was unclear.

Bee staff writer Erin Tracy can be reached at etracy@modbee.com or (209) 578-2366.


Scene from Chase Bank incident

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