Investigators Seek 'Coughing
Man' In Mass Train Illness
By Jack Warner and Joshua B. Good
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Investigators today were trying to trace a mysterious man who walked through a MARTA car coughing and staggering just seconds before passengers began having trouble breathing.
MARTA authorities said today they still have no idea what forced 21 passengers from one car of a southbound train to seek treatment at Grady Memorial Hospital.
Doctors sent home everyone except a 14-year-old boy whose throat swelled shut. Hospital staffers inserted a tube to his lungs to keep him breathing, said Dr. Philip Shayne, a Grady emergency room spokesman.
The boy was in satisfactory condition today, said Grady spokeswoman Barbara Vogel.
"He's doing very well," Vogel said. "His breathing problems are looking better. "
Officials shut down the Oakland City MARTA station, disrupting the commute for two hours during the evening rush hour. The station was operating normally today.
The FBI's domestic terrorism squad joined the investigation because of reports that a man sprayed something into the train, said Celestine Armstead, spokeswoman for the FBI's Atlanta office.
However, Dee Baker, a spokeswoman for MARTA, said investigators had found no one who saw anything sprayed. She said the investigation was centered on a man dressed in "a heavy coat and shorts" who entered the car through a back door at the West End station.
The man coughed uncontrollably, gasped out an expletive, walked up the aisle clutching at seats to keep himself balanced and staggered out through the middle door, she said. Seconds later, on the two-minute run to Oakland City, passengers began falling ill.
"He seemed to have been exposed to the same thing or something similar as the passengers," Baker said.
She said investigators had found no one who noticed the man at West End before or after he passed through the car. She said they were checking to see whether he showed up on security videos at the station. No one saw him spray anything, she said. "He had his hands covering his mouth or holding on to the seats."
MARTA Police Chief Gene Wilson said he had conflicting reports about what the man looked like.
The first victims were the seven riders, the first MARTA police officer to enter the train at 6:12 p.m., and a MARTA rail supervisor, Wilson said.
Of the 21 victims, those most seriously affected coughed, felt tightness in their chests, had eye irritation, felt nauseated and had difficulty breathing.
Medical care for the victims began at the MARTA station. Atlanta firefighters hosed off victims, dousing the fully clothed people with a light stream of water. Ambulances took them to Grady.
At the hospital, the victims stepped off the ambulances and into plastic decontamination tents. Hospital staffers escorted the victims through a series of showers.
Because no one knew what the substance was, Grady workers placed all sheets, towels and materials in red hazardous waste bags. They also drained the shower water into barrels, instead of letting it go into the Atlanta sewer system.
Those who were released were given green hospital scrubs to wear because their clothes were confiscated by the FBI to identify the substance, Vogel said.
Every emergency employee who came into contact with the victims from the train went through the same decontamination process at the scene and then again at Grady.
Staff writers Mike Morris, Gita M. Smith, Doug Payne and Cory McDonald contributed to this article.