By Bruce Newman, Mercury News
It had been somebody's lunch once. Or maybe a soft-cheese snack, tucked away — and then forgotten — in the back of an office mini-fridge at the AT&T call center in North San Jose.
That was long ago, before figs become fur-bearing and corned beef mutates into stink on rye. Nobody really knows what it was in the offending refrigerator that prompted an evacuation Tuesday morning and ambulance rides to the hospital for seven people, who were overcome by the stench and fumes from an ill-fated attempt to clean it.
It finally became so unbearable that the San Jose Fire Department's hazmat team was summoned to the North First Street office complex just before lunchtime. Before they could determine that it wasn't an attempt by terrorists to disable the information grid — maybe just some broccoli from the Bush administration gone really, really bad — a second alarm was issued.
In the end, 325 AT&T employees poured out to a parking lot that was the company's designated evacuation site. A total of 50 firefighters and 18 emergency vehicles raced to the scene. Seven employees, who were vomiting or complaining of nausea, were treated at area hospitals.
The aroma of rotting food was hard enough to stomach. But when an employee decided to remove the mess to a conference room and scour the fridge with a cleaning fluid similar to 409 or Lysol, "she didn't smell a thing," said Capt. Barry Stallard of the fire department.
The woman on fridge duty had previously undergone nasal surgery for allergies.
Adding to the noxious mix, another employee sprayed a different chemical cleaner into the air, assuming it would temper the scent, Stallard said. "And that's when the party started."
The combination of chemicals was an obvious no-no.
But the big question? What was that in the fridge? AT&T employees weren't revealing. Something about a gag order.
Stallard, who had a good whiff, admits he forgot to ask. But it may have been meat, because this had the familiar smell of, well, decomposition. "A steak and a dog and a person, when they all start to rot, it's a horrible thing," said Stallard, who has inhaled his share of all of those in 23 years of firefighting.
Twenty-eight people with functioning noses had to be checked out by paramedics after they were overcome by fumes.
"One of our top priorities, along with keeping people connected, is safety," said AT&T spokesman John Britton.
At first, AT&T officials worried they had a mysterious hazmat situation when somebody called 911 at 11:54 a.m. to report that an odor in the building was making people sick. The hazmat team found no toxins, Stallard said. The fridge fairy led authorities to the odor on the second floor.
Despite the disruptions, even AT&T employees found humor in the bizarre pre-lunch break, joking with fire crews to return about 2:30 Friday afternoon to get them out of work, Stallard said.
And despite the noxious in-your-nasal-passage reminder, Stallard said he for one didn't rush back to the firehouse to check the back of the fridge.
"We clean it on a regular basis," he said. "With 50 people using the same fridge, you can only imagine what gets left behind. The last time I poured some milk out, some big lumps came out."By Bruce Newman, Mercury News