LIHU‘E — Mysterious emissions caused the Lihu‘e Airport to shut down for a few hours Thursday evening and sent several Transportation Security Administration staff to Wilcox Memorial Hospital emergency room.
“Some sort of fumes affected 11 TSA personnel,” said Friday Dan Meisenzahl, spokesman for the state Department of Transportation, adding that the cause of the incident is yet to be determined.
But at least one person who was working at the airport Thursday suspects the culprit was a radiation leak in one of the TSA screening booths.
“I was there all day, I can guarantee you there was no smell,” said an airport worker who asked not to be identified for fear of being terminated.
The worker said all TSA personnel who felt ill were working next to a TSA screening booth. He took several pictures of a hazardous materials response team examining the same booth with equipment that he was told was to measure radiation levels.
“It started around 2 p.m., when two girls were sent home,” said the worker, adding that the women were standing next to the same machine the HAZMAT team had allegedly tested for radiation.
After that, a domino effect ensued, he said, resulting in 11 workers being treated for sickness.
The worker was concerned that he, his co-workers and the thousands of passengers who went through the same booth Thursday could have been exposed to unsafe radiation levels.
Meisenzahl said Friday he had no idea about radiation testing.
On Thursday, Meisenzahl stated in a press release that the TSA workers at the main checkpoint experienced dizziness, nausea, headache, throwing up and a chemical taste in their mouths.
“The HAZMAT team of the Kaua‘i County Fire Department performed an extensive investigation and could not locate the cause,” he said Friday.
County spokeswoman Mary Daubert said the HAZMAT crew tested the center checkpoint for toxic and hazardous odors and substances and found none, and found no radiation.
Meisenzahl said all TSA personnel who got sick were treated at the scene by paramedics, who determined they were fine.
As a precaution, he said, TSA management urged all workers who got sick to go to the hospital for further tests.
“All but one agreed,” Meisenzahl said. “The doctors at the hospital also determined that they were all fine.”
He said on Friday that all machines were tested and are working properly. But concerning the workers, the only thing TSA was telling him was that the operations were back to normal. “So I assume that means all workers are back to their normal shift.”
Daubert said that after HAZMAT tested the area, it was deemed safe for workers and travelers to use.
Nothing similar has happened at any of Hawai‘i’s 15 airports, according to Meisenzahl. He had no information on the status of Mainland airports.
TSA spokesman Nico Mendez said the employees have been given a clean bill of health and TSA will continue to work with local officials to determine the cause of the incident.
“The health and welfare of our officers is paramount to the success of our agency and security of the airport,” he said.
The worker who spoke with The Garden Island said TSA staff always tells travelers to put down their cameras, prohibiting them from taking pictures at the airport.
“It makes you wonder what kind of stuff is going on there,” he said.
Meisenzahl said travelers are allowed to take pictures at the airport, but not of TSA equipment and checkpoints, per TSA policy.
• Léo Azambuja, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 252) or lazambuja@ thegardenisland.com.