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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, March 16, 2001

Contamination cleanup tests residents' patience

By Tanya Bricking
Advertiser Staff Writer

The sign hanging in the gymnasium at Halawa District Park tells part of the uncomfortable story: "Shower line. 5 minutes per shower! Please do not exceed."

It doesn't say it's only cold water, or that there's one shower for the 70 people who have been spending the night since Monday.

A mercury scare, which sent children to hospitals and closed schools for several days, has grown old for those blocked from their homes or stuck inside their apartments for the fifth day at Pu'uwai Momi and Makalapa Manor housing units in Halawa.

Health officials are keeping many of the 260 housing units off-limits because at least 18 apartments are contaminated with the silvery liquid metal children found last week in an abandoned pump station. Dozens living there have been afraid to leave for fear that they won't be let back in. Others are sleeping on cots or the floor at the district park and eating food donated by McDonald's, Zippy's and church groups.

The forced quarantine has separated families and tried nerves.

"I really believe if this was Hawai'i Kai, it would have been over already. It would have been cleaned up faster," said Bernadette Chung, president of the Pu'uwai Momi Tenants Association at the low-income complex. "It's very frustrating."

Chung is staying in her apartment, but her four grandchildren are stuck at the shelter.

"Every day, I tell myself to look on the bright side: 'Tomorrow they're coming back,' " she said. "The next day, it's, 'Tomorrow they're coming back.' They have quite a few more units to go. We feel neglected. We feel helpless. No matter what we say, it doesn't matter."

State Rep. Bob McDermott, R-32nd ('Aiea, Foster Village, Salt Lake, Halawa), urged the health officials yesterday to let people back in their homes by this weekend.

"This is ridiculous that they are taking so long to assess the contamination and clean up the mercury," he said. "These families have had their lives thrown into chaos by this unfortunate incident — people are losing their jobs, missing work and school, separated from family members — and the state health department seems to be moving at a snail's pace."

Willie Naehu, 41, hasn't seen a drop of mercury. But Naehu, who needs a uniform for a security guard job, has been missing work and living with friends. Cinda Quiocho, 45, was allowed back in her apartment for a few minutes yesterday to gather some clothes and food, but she was escorted back out and tested for mercury.

Blaine Kalama has resorted to sleeping in his car, and his sense of humor is helping him cope.

"I'm a big snorer," said Kalama, 40, a custodian at 'Aiea High School. "I don't want guys to go, 'Whoa! This guy keeping us awake.' "

It's been tiring, Kalama said, but he's grateful for vouchers from the American Red Cross that helped him buy clothes for himself and 15-year-old daughter."Now it's getting a little better," he said. "They've got TVs for us and videos so we can pass the day."

For others, the quarantine has meant long nights apart from loved ones. It has kept Lillian Tuua, 55, separated from her husband, who is at home with a spinal cord injury.

"I sleep over here at the shelter at night, but my mind is over there with my old man," she said. "I'm the only caregiver."

But for her grandson, Joseph Tuua, 13, one of the boys who played with mercury over the weekend and was unaware of its dangers, this week has been like a big slumber party.

Katie Williams, who has been staying at the shelter with her seven children and one grandchild, has had her hands full keeping up with them. She said she wishes she could have prevented the whole thing.

She was getting ready for the beach Sunday when she saw her 15-year-old and other children playing with mercury.

"It was all over outside the house and the whole area," she said. "I knew what it was and I told them to get rid of it, but they thought it was neat and they still played with it."

A police officer came knocking at her door Monday morning and told her to leave.

"The thing looked harmless," said T.J. Kapesi, 14, who was intrigued last weekend by the silver beads all over the neighborhood. "It's just a little puddle. It was all on top of the stairs, so we were scooping it up with cards and putting it in containers."

But Chris Anakalea, 13, a seventh-grader at 'Aiea Intermediate, who poured the liquid metal into bottles last Saturday, said he's learned his lesson.

This week was an education that mercury, best know as the silver liquid in thermometers, is a toxic metal, and even a small spill can be enough to pose a health risk.

Exposure to high levels of elemental mercury vapor can cause nervous system damage.

After Anakalea was told about the dangers, "I thought, 'Oh, no, I'm going to die already,' " he said. Now, he says, he'll call police if he ever sees any more mercury.

"No fool around with stuff that I don't know what it is," he said. "I no like die, that's why."