By Joshua Maloni
First responders are investigating a mysterious smell that caused seven Village of Lewiston Post Office workers to require medical assistance this morning.
Presently, the corner of South Eighth and Cayuga streets is roped off, and hazardous materials teams are analyzing the post office. Barriers stretch from Tops Xpress down to Villa Coffee House.
Lewiston No. 1 Volunteer Fire Co.'s Michael Salada said, "At 7:52, police and fire received a call of an odor inside the post office. At that point, the building was evacuated - prior to our arrival. On our arrival, we had seven employees who had symptoms. They were treated and transported to (Mount St. Mary's Hospital). The Niagara County hazmat team, as well as the U.S. Air Force airbase hazmat team, are on location. They are making entry to determine what the substance might be."
Salada said the employees complained of sore throat and watery eyes. Another nine workers were said to be symptom-free.
"We have no indication as to what the substance is at this point," Salada said, and explained authorities couldn't yet narrow the smell down to one particular part of the post office.
Lewiston Police Chief Frank Previte said the first responders would suit up, hold a safety briefing and receive a schematic of the building.
Jonathan Schultz, Niagara County director of emergency services and fire coordinator, said the air would be tested with a variety of "sophisticated" and "sensitive" monitors.
"They're checking it for various levels of chemicals, any carbon monoxide, any type of substance that might be in the air," he said.
He offered no timeline for results.
"We're taking all precautions, checking all levels of what it might be within the building to determine what's going on," Schultz said.
He added, "They'll be checking every square inch of that building. ... They'll be going through the whole facility to make sure everything's safe."
Previte said statements would be taken from the postal employees. He noted it was too early to determine if the smell was a criminal issue, a mistake or broken piece of equipment, or whether any past or present employee had reason to commit foul play.
Should something be found, Schultz said, "We'll take a step back, and we'll work our way through and plan through based on what they find. And we'll determine what we have to do as the day goes on, to, obviously, take care of the facility, the employees and everyone in the surrounding area."
11 a.m. press conference update: Mark Hain, deputy fire coordinator for Niagara County Emergency Services, and chief in charge of the county hazmat team, said, "We've taken samples. ... We're getting ready to go in and do some more sampling. At this current time, anything that could be in there is contained within the building."
Though nothing has been ruled out yet, including mechanical or equipment malfunction, Hain said, "We're feeling pretty safe with what's going on inside there."
First responders have communicated with the postal workers taken to the hospital. Previte said they are still receiving treatment. No update was provided on their condition.
Michele Siwinski, a U.S. Postal inspector and team leader for the Postal Inspection Service, said mail already within the post office will remain on site, as it's now part of the investigation. Other deliveries will be rerouted. She said it's unclear how delivery will be affected today, or beyond today, depending on the testing results.
Lewiston has a large senior citizen population, and some residents receive medicine and other necessary aid in the mail.
"If the scene is not clear before tomorrow, there will be some contingencies for people to be able to get their mail," Siwinski said. "The carriers from this office would be operating out of a different office."
No other businesses are closed, though the Tops Xpress mini market and gas station also is closed. It's serving as a temporary headquarters for first responders.
Previte said other agencies, including Erie County hazmat, will be arriving to assist.
The Lewiston Post Office is located at 150 S. Eighth St.