Belfast Telegraph

Ammonia leak: Kilkeel fish factory staff given all-clear

By Brett Campbell

The boss of a fish factory where 14 employees were taken to hospital after inhaling dangerous gas has expressed relief that no one was seriously injured.

Managing director Andy Rooney of Rooney Fish said he is delighted that all 14 of his employees have been given the all-clear following an ammonia leak at neighbouring Young's Seafood plant in Kilkeel Harbour, Co Down at lunchtime on Monday.

All the gas was blown by the wind into the Rooney plant.

Mr Rooney said: "There was initial panic because people began vomiting and struggling to breathe and we didn't know why.

"We didn't know what had triggered it but the gas was everywhere - fortunately we have protocols and were able to put them into practice very quickly."

Mr Rooney said it is the first time he has ever experienced a major incident at the shellfish processing plant where business has now returned to normal.

Firefighters gave oxygen to a number of people at the scene before paramedics arrived.

The casualties were then taken to Daisy Hill Hospital in Newry where two patients were admitted. Yesterday a South Eastern Health Trust spokemsan confirmed both people have been released.

"They have been given the all-clear," Mr Rooney said. "We are totally overwhelmed by the response of the emergency services. All the paramedics, firemen and hospital staff went above and beyond their job role."

Young's Seafood said an investigation is now underway to establish how the leak happened while engineers conducted routine annual tests.

A lifelong fisherman, based in Kilkeel Harbour, described how people exposed to the substance gasped for air as their eyes burned.

"Ammonia is a pungent gas and it's quite light, but it can become heavier in humid conditions," he explained. "It must have sunk down over the wall to get from Young's into Rooney's. People's eyes were burning with the stench of it - it smells like urine. They became dizzy and started throwing up and trying frantically to get oxygen back in their lungs."

Another local fisherman said ammonia, which is used as a refrigerant to keep catches fresh, was abandoned years ago in favour of Freon, or R22.

"They ended up banning that because it was high in CFCs (which contribute to depletion of the ozone layer), so people have no choice but to use ammonia again," he said.

Retired fireman James Norris (65), who owns JN Hire in Kilkeel Harbour, said everyone was alarmed by the major incident which ended at 5pm on Monday.

"We were all wondering what on earth was going on, but we became very concerned when we saw the Air Ambulance arrive," he said.

"I was in the fire service for 25 years and I have been in this shop for 12 and I have never come across an ammonia leak. It is lucky that no one was more seriously injured."

A nearby cafe worker described the scene at Rooney's Fish as "pandemonium" as fire crew kitted out in breathing apparatus moved in to test the level of gas in the air and assist the injured.

"Nobody knew what was going on. A decontamination tent was set-up and everyone who was evacuated came in talking about a chemical leak," she said. "It was dealt with very quickly and with absolute professionalism."

Belfast Telegraph

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