Cyanide exposure poses issue in Thursday’s Eaton Street blaze

(Photo: Justin White/WPRI)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A Providence fire captain who was seriously injured following Thursday’s massive fire on Eaton Street has been upgraded to stable condition.

Veteran Providence Fire Captain Joseph Fontaine remains in the Intensive Care Unit at Rhode Island Hospital and is being treated for cyanide exposure from the fire.

“He has been extubated, had the tube removed,” said Paul Doughty, president of the Providence Firefighters’ Union. “He’s conscious and was able to speak a few words last night as he was extubated.”

Fontaine, a 31-year veteran of the department, is in his late 50s and has three sons and wife. Eyewitness News has learned his family – both biological and firefighting – has been at his side around the clock.

“After they removed the tube, he asked, ‘How’s my guys?’ And I think that just kind of says the kind of guy that he really is,” Doughty said.

The department is monitoring eight firefighters who were working closely together in an area where it is believed cyanide was prevalent.

Captain Joseph Fontaine (WPRI file photo)
Captain Joseph Fontaine (WPRI file photo)

According to Doughty, one firefighter who was taken to Miriam Hospital with cardiac issues also tested positive for cyanide.

Cyanide is a byproduct caused by the burning of household items.

“It seems we have a cluster of firefighters who were all working in the same vicinity – and that was in the attic space of the building to the right of the main building that burned,” Doughty explained.

According to officials, the hours-long battle at the fire had negative impacts on crews’ air packs.

“When their air packs ran out, at times they were forced to maintain their positions to make sure that the fire didn’t spread. Because it was that dire of a situation. I mean you could’ve had a conflagration very, very easily,” Doughty explained.

Three firefighters remain hospitalized Friday night – after a total of 21 were taken in for treatment following the fire.

The department said decisions made by the incident commander prevented the huge fire on Eaton Street from spreading across the entire block.

Nineteen Providence College students were displaced when the homes on either side of the main building caught fire. All students are uninjured, according to the school, and are now being assisted on campus with housing and other supplies.

Cyanide dangers 

A Canadian fire engineering study from several years ago found hydrogen cyanide to be 35 times more toxic than carbon monoxide.

As of Friday, fire officials said five of the firefighters involved in the Eaton Street blaze had been given the cyanide antidote.

“Latent smoke, perhaps burning plastics that produce cyanide at a higher level,” Doughty said. “Part of the problem with cyanide is that its symptoms are very similar to both smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning. It’s under-treated and under-tested.”

Fortunately, RI medicine did both.

Doughty said it’s local protocol to assume cyanide exposure in smoke inhalation cases.

“They will routinely administer the antidote so that there’s no lag time,” he explained.

Officials said the department has limited means of detecting cyanide levels and has no means of doing so on a fire suppression scene.

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