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Illness reports force FedEx facility evacuation

Casey Grove
Emergency personnel respond after a mysterious illness struck some workers at the Anchorage FedEx sort facility Thursday afternoon Dec. 20, 2012 at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. Employees were temporarily evacuated from the warehouse-style building on Postmark Drive.
Erik Hill
Emergency vehicles are parked outside the northeast corner of the FedEx building on Dec. 20.
Erik Hill

A mysterious illness that struck some workers at the Anchorage FedEx sorting hub Thursday caused airport police and firefighters to evacuate the large warehouse-style building on Postmark Drive. But it wasn't immediately clear why they got sick and the building was later reopened.

The facility was shut down from about 3 to 4 p.m. after four workers at the facility reported feeling sick, according to Tennessee-based FedEx spokeswoman Shea Leordeanu.

One or two of them were rushed to an Anchorage hospital for evaluation, while about 150 others took shelter in the company's hangar, said Jesse Davis, chief of the police and fire department at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport.

Firefighters trained to detect and deal with hazardous materials spills wore protective suits and swept through the 500,000-square-foot building with sensors, Davis said. They found no sign of such a spill, he said.

Workers were allowed back in just after 4 p.m. and were again sorting the tens of thousands of packages flowing to and from cargo planes during the company's peak holiday shipping season, Leordeanu said.

"We're happy our conveyor belts are running again," she said. "This is crunch time."

The symptoms and severity of the workers' illness remained unclear late Thursday but all were expected to recover, Davis said. Everyone affected worked in the same area and emergency services personnel continued to search for a source of the sickness, the chief said.

"It could be anything from illness they brought with them, to food poisoning -- anything. That's why we don't just pack up and leave and try to ascertain what caused that," Davis said. "They've ruled out any carbon monoxide poisoning. So the next step would be to conduct a blood draw to see what it could've been. Once you have more than one person, that's cause for concern, especially in one area like that."

Davis said he was not sure what job duties the stricken workers performed and said it appeared unlikely their symptoms were the result of working with packages.

Airport Manager John Parrott said he did not anticipate any delays for passenger air traffic.

In the last weeks before Christmas, the sorting center's traffic goes from its usual 60,000 packages per day to about twice that, according to FedEx. The Anchorage sorting hub is one of the company's busiest, facilitating the delivery of goods, including electronics, from Asia to the United States, said Leordeanu, the FedEx spokeswoman.

"It is certainly is a very, very busy time of year for us," she said.

Reach Casey Grove at casey.grove@adn.com or 257-4589.


By CASEY GROVE
casey.grove@adn.com