Cops: 1 dead after carbon monoxide leak at Walt Whitman Shops

Suffolk County police say at least two people appear to have been overcome by carbon monoxide poisoning at the Walt Whitman Shops in Huntington Station on Saturday evening, Feb. 22, 2014. (Credit: Stringer News Service)

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A man died and 27 others were treated for carbon monoxide poisoning after an apparent leak Saturday night in the basement of a restaurant at the Walt Whitman Shops in Huntington Station, police said.

Suffolk police, fire crews and medics rushed to the mall shortly after 6 p.m.

The first report was that a female employee had fallen in the basement of the Legal Sea Foods restaurant, Suffolk police Det. Lt. Jack Fitzpatrick said.

"When rescue personnel arrived, they started to feel lightheaded and nauseous," and they quickly realized they were dealing with carbon monoxide fumes, he said.

The man who died was identified by police as Steven Nelson, 55, general manager of Legal Sea Foods. He was found in the basement, overcome by fumes, authorities said.

None of the other victims, including the unidentified female employee, suffered life-threatening injuries, Fitzpatrick said.

Legal Sea Foods was evacuated and two neighboring restaurants, The Cheesecake Factory and Panera Bread, also were cleared as a precaution, police said.

Victims, including four ambulance workers and three police officers, were sent to five area hospitals, Fitzpatrick said. The majority of the other 21 victims were Legal Sea Foods employees, he said.

Authorities are investigating whether the heating system in the basement was the source of the leak. Fitzpatrick said the exposure appeared to be confined to the basement and dining areas were not affected.

Nelson arrived at Huntington Hospital in full cardiac arrest and later died, said Julie Robinson-Tingue, a hospital spokeswoman.

According to his LinkedIn profile, Nelson has managed Legal Sea Foods since May 2010. He previously held similar positions at a Ruth's Chris Steakhouse and an Olive Garden, and owned and operated a restaurant and catering enterprise for nine years, starting in 1981.

A 1980 graduate from Stony Brook University, Nelson listed his interests as body building and fitness training, and sports ranging from baseball to skiing.

Medical examiners are determining the cause of death, but carbon monoxide poisoning is a "logical conclusion," Fitzpatrick said.

At the bustling mall, yellow tape closed off the evacuated restaurants Saturday night.

Jose Blanco, 20, a line cook at The Cheesecake Factory, said the staff and customers were suddenly ordered to evacuate.

"Out of nowhere . . . they told us to get out," he said.

Kathy Sella, 48, of Seaford, and Ashley Harper, 22, of Bay Shore, were seated in the restaurant's bar area when they were told to get out.

"The lights went on, and we were told to evacuate," Sella said. "They said, 'You have to leave.' "

She described what followed as a "mad rush" by people to get outside.

Inside the mall, shoppers seemed unfazed, casually strolling through shops as if nothing was amiss.

Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless gas that can cause illness and death. The gas is found in combustion fumes, such as those produced by cars and trucks, small gasoline engines, stoves and heating systems, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The most common symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are headache, dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, chest pain and confusion. High levels of inhalation can cause loss of consciousness and death, the CDC said.

With Joan Gralla

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