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City hall evacuated over mystery gas

Caused coughing, burning sensation, says city manager

St. Albert fire crews still aren’t sure what caused the strange smell that emptied out St. Albert Place Thursday night.

About 60 people evacuated from St. Albert Place at about 5:30 p.m. on Aug. 22 after city employees detected an unidentified hazardous gas/smell in the building’s front stairwell.

City chief administrative officer Kevin Scoble said he and deputy CAO Kerry Hilts were the ones who reported the gas. The two had just pushed open the door to the stairs on the third floor at around 5:30 p.m. when they smelled what Hilts described as “an obnoxious sweet odour” and started coughing. Scoble said whatever was in the air in the stairwell caused a burning sensation in his eyes, nose and lungs.

Scoble, who said he was unharmed by the encounter, said he and Hilts immediately closed the door and warned the handful of others on the third floor at the time not to use it. He called 911, and the operator told him to pull the fire alarm.

St. Albert Public Library employee Nicholas Brodeur said he and about 46 other people filed out of the library into the front lobby when they heard the alarm.

“We went to the front and someone came in and said there might be a gas leak under the stairwell, so we evacuated,” he said.

Arden Theatre front of house co-ordinator Sarah Craft said she had been hanging out with two children one of her friends brought to work and was getting ready to go home when the alarm went off.

“They’re actually having a blast,” she said of the two kids, who were hanging out with her in front of St. Albert Place shortly thereafter, but she herself was in a bit of a bind as her car keys were still in the building. She was one of about 10 people in the Arden area when the alarm went off.

St. Albert Fire and Rescue crews ordered St. Albert Place closed for the night as they used large fans to clear out the hazardous gas.

“As soon as you go in there, it irritates the lungs,” said platoon chief Rob Bonner.

“We don’t know what it is yet.”

Bonner said crews initially suspected an ammonia leak, but soon ruled that out, as the stairwell did not have ammonia or natural gas lines in it. They next suspected an accidental reaction between chemical cleaners, as there’s a bathroom by the stairs, but the building’s cleaning crews said they did not use anything but a lemon-scented water-based product. Firefighters who searched the stairwell could smell the odour but could not find any obvious source for it, and could not identify the odour using gas detectors.

“We’re kind of figuring it was a toilet bowl cleaner mixed with another cleaner,” Bonner said, adding that he believed this to be an accidental gas release.

Bonner said no injuries were reported as a result of the gas.

Crews cleared the foul air from St. Albert Place by 7:30 p.m., Hilts said in an email. The building reopened Friday morning, save for the front stairs, which stayed closed for deep cleaning and air monitoring. Crews continue to investigate the source of the gas/odour.

Bonner said anyone who encounters a suspicious gas in a building should evacuate the area, call 911, and get examined by ambulance workers.

Kevin Ma

About the Author: Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.
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