A chemical fire broke out yesterday in the Litton Bionetics Inc. laboratory in Rockville, exposing several firefighters to potentially deadly fumes and possibly small amounts of radioactivity.
Officials said the blaze began at 3:45 p.m. while chemist Abraham Coe, 33, was conducting what was described as a routine laboratory analysis for the chemical research firm.
"I had good ventilation," Coe said yesterday, standing in the parking lot surrounded by fire engines and several hundred Litton employes who evacuated the building. "There was no reason for the fire, no sparks or anything. I was talking to another chemist at the time.
"Suddenly, I felt a wind, a force come past my face. The hood was on fire. Flames were shooting out. We used the fire extinguisher, but it didn't do any good."
Coe, who has been employed by Litton since August, said he was handling ether in a small, closet-like room referred to as a "hood" and protected from the rest of the laboratory.
Coe's immediate superior, Jerry Fitzgerald, said the damage to the building had not been estimated.
"I've got to wait to get in there tonight," he said. "There are $500.000 instruments in there."
There also were rooms full of flammable chemicals stored on the fourth floor, where the fire broke out, but the blaze was contained within 20 minutes.
There were no apparent injuries, but fire officials said six Litton employes and Montgomery County firefighters were examined for possible exposure to toxic fumes or radiation.
The 35 firemen who entered the building and the eight employes who were working near the room where the fire broke out were told to wash thoroughly with soapy water.
"It's possible that some of them were exposed to a low dose of radioactivity," said Lt. Leonard King of the Montgomery Country fire and rescue squard.
Litton president Jim Nance said there was "a very low level of trace material" in the immediate area of the blaze. Radioactive waste, he said, was stored outside the building.
The blaze at 5516 Nicholson La., snarled rush hour traffic on Rockville Pike as police cordoned off the lane adjacent to the White Flint shopping center.
"It was very dark, very hot and very smoky," said Tom Campbell of the Kensington Fire Department. "The fire spread to three or four rooms. It smelled like burnt eggs, a very acidy smell, and white stuff on the floor was sizzling."
"We didnT think about the radioactivity until we got out," said one firefighter, removing his breathing apparatus. "Then they all said we were gonna glow in the dark for the rest of our lives."
Litton officials said valuable records and documents were destroyed in the fire, the worst the company has experienced since it moved to Rockville six years ago.