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Tue, Feb 22, 2005 - Page 12 News List

Mystery sickness closes Melbourne air terminal

AIRLINE SERVICE Authorities evacuated hundreds of people after staff in a domestic terminal started to fall ill, and were still investigating the cause of the incident

AFP , MELBOURNE

A Virgin Airlines employee is wheeled from a terminal at Australia's Tullamarine Airport in Melbourne by paramedics in protective clothing yesterday. Hundreds of passengers were evacuated from the airport terminal after dozens of staff became ill following a possible chemical or gas leak.

PHOTO: AP

One of Australia's main airport terminals was shut down and hundreds of staff and passengers evacuated yesterday after a mystery illness struck down more than 50 people, officials said.

Paramedics, firefighters and hazardous materials crews in full protective clothing rushed to Melbourne airport after staff in a domestic terminal began suffering nausea and vomiting, dizziness, headaches and respiratory problems.

Some 700 staff and passengers were evacuated and the terminal shut down around 10:00am while emergency crews tested air conditioning units and other facilities in an unsuccessful hunt for what was causing the illness.

Ambulance service spokesman James Howe said 47 people were taken to hospital and another 10 were treated at the scene.

Thirty-five people were later released from hospital, he said.

Paramedics set up a field hospital outside the airport and some two dozen ambulances were on hand to ferry the sick to hospital.

Most of those affected were security and airline staff working in the departure area for domestic carrier Virgin Blue, officials said.

The shutdown of the terminal -- which was still closed more than 10 hours after the first person fell ill -- caused chaos around the airport.

Many Virgin Blue and other domestic flights were delayed or cancelled and incoming passengers had to be off-loaded on the tarmac and taken to another terminal.

Terminals servicing international air traffic and the Australian flag carrier Qantas continued functioning normally.

While some stranded travellers found seats aboard other airlines' flights, they could not recover their luggage, which was stuck in the closed Virgin Blue terminal, an airline spokeswoman said.

Emergency officials suspected that some kind of toxic gas leak was responsible for the contamination, but firemen using sophisticated testing equipment were still unable to pinpoint the source after hours of efforts.

"We still haven't determined what caused the people to collapse," said Commander Brian McCartney of the fire brigade.

"A number of things have been eliminated so we're now trying to determine if it is a chemical leak of some sort," he told Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio.

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