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Carbon monoxide first responders refused to abandon rescue effort, says squad captain

Emergency vehicles brought rescuers to Legal Sea Foods

Emergency vehicles brought rescuers to Legal Sea Foods in the Shops at Walt Whitman mall Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014, after carbon monoxide fumes were discovered in the restaurant basement. The Panera Bread next door was evacuated. Credit: Steve Silverman

Members of the Huntington Community First Aid Squad had been in the basement of Legal Sea Foods at Walt Whitman Shops at least 10 minutes and were lightheaded and nauseous when fire officials burst down the stairs Saturday night, Capt. Mark Cappola said.

"They had their air tanks on and helmets on. They told us there was a high concentration of carbon monoxide and we had to get out of there immediately," he said Sunday.

But members of the volunteer squad, who were performing CPR on a man identified later as restaurant manager Steven Nelson, would not budge, Cappola said.

"We were refusing to leave unless they took our patient with us," he said. "We take it right to the edge before we abandon a patient."

Cappola was among more than two dozen people, including four ambulance personnel and three police officers, sent to five hospitals with nonlife-threatening symptoms of carbon monoxide exposure, Suffolk police said.

Nelson, 55, of Copiague, was later pronounced dead at Huntington Hospital, police said. The Suffolk medical examiner's office did not disclose the cause of his death.

A four-person crew from the aid squad initially responded to a call about 6 p.m. for a fall victim that was upgraded to an unconscious victim, Cappola said.

"It just looked like a routine call," he said.

The crew found a woman unconscious in the basement, he said. Officials identified her as the restaurant's associate general manager, Megan Smith.

"They put her on oxygen. They were able to revive her and I believe that's when they learned of [Nelson], who was in the bathroom," he said. "That bathroom door was locked. They called for a second ambulance and that's when I went."

After Suffolk police pried open the door, the aid squad found Nelson in cardiac arrest on the floor, Cappola said.

Between the first five and 10 minutes of being in the basement, Cappola said he felt nauseous and lightheaded.

Huntington Manor Fire Chief Fred Steenson Jr. said emergency personnel did not take typical carbon monoxide precautions because the 911 call was for a woman who had fallen down.

Cappola, who was later brought to Plainview Hospital, said he and other first responders don't typically wear a self-breathing apparatus or other safety equipment because it impedes their ability to deliver aid.

On Sunday morning, other first responders who received treatment at hospitals said they had headaches and were at home resting, said Cappola.

Third Assistant Chief Michael Bellis of the Greenlawn Fire Department said the department sent two ambulances to assist.

Firefighters used a Rad-57 CO-Oximeter, a monitor that is affixed on the finger, to detect whether people were exposed to carbon monoxide. "If our monitors showed that they had any carbon monoxide readings then we were to transport them."

The situation was unlike anything that Cappola has experienced in his 11-year service in the 250-member aid squad, which responded to 5,600 calls last year, he said.

"It was actually fortunate that somebody found the [woman] . . . downstairs . . . and they discovered what the problem was before the gas seeped into the restaurant, because it could have been a catastrophe."

With Sarah Armaghan and Jennifer Barrios

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