Art from After Dark, by Shell Presto

Unsolved Haz-Mat Mystery that inspired ‘Miasma’

This article was originally published on July 25, 2014.

Now that After Dark is out, I can share one of my favorite tales of High Strangeness from my local area. But first, a scene from the “Miasma” chapter of After Dark to set the mood:

“I must have missed something,” said Sebastian Pereira as he tightened the strap of his goggles and tugged his mask into place. The pair of vigilantes were standing in sparse woodland alongside the railroad tracks, beneath a deep dip in the land that hid the lights of Pittsburgh and left them in deepening shadow beneath the vernal stars. Sebastian, now in the guise of Torrent, continued: “I thought you said he had chemical burns?”

Alex Shepherd, his mouth shrouded beneath a red scarf – the disguise of the hero called The Mysterious X – nodded his head as he replied. “All over his chest and arms. He was treated at the decon facility at the Pitt medical campus.”

“But they didn’t find any trace of chemicals?” asked Torrent.

“Well, that’s what they said. The paper said they tested the clothes and had some kind of chemical sensor sniff the air and they both turned up nothing. But that can’t be true now, can it?”

“Unless the guy was a nutcase and he burned himself a long time before then.”

“How does that explain the paramedic who passed out from the fumes?”

“Mass hysteria?” suggested Torrent.

“I thought you didn’t believe in mass hysteria?”

Torrent grinned. “I don’t.”

“This is as blatant a cover-up as any we’ve seen. Nobody wants to touch the case; they’ve been passing the buck like a hot potato for two days. The fire marshal said his investigation is over because there were no chemicals; the city cops said they had no jurisdiction and it was up to the railroad security; the Pinkertons said the hobo couldn’t have been riding one of the C&K trains and there were no chemicals on the trains anyway, so it’s not their problem. Not one of them even interviewed the guy! Somebody, probably all of them, knows what really happened, but they’re sweeping it under the rug.”

This creepy mystery and potentially sinister cover-up was basically “ripped from the headlines”, though you probably hadn’t heard about it before, because it happened in podunk Northumberland County, PA, which is very nearby my home.

In January 2011, an ambulance, the State Police, and eventually a Haz-Mat team were called to treat a transient (that is, a hobo) who suffered from significant chemical burns. From the Pottsville Republican Herald:

Authorities said Tuesday that no traces of chemicals – or any substance – were found on the clothes of a drifter who’s blistering stomach triggered a hazardous materials scare Monday in Northumberland County.

Yet, the man, identified by state police as Nicholas Brooks, 27, with no known home address, was listed in critical condition Tuesday afternoon at Lehigh Valley Hospital, Allentown. And the chief of Dalmatia Area Ambulance told how his close contact with the man Monday revealed an odor he’s never experienced before and “took my breath away.”

As the conflicting developments add to the mystery in this bizarre incident, state police and Norfolk Southern Corp. railroad were in disagreement Tuesday as to who was leading the investigation. Ultimately, state police released the man’s name, after saying in a press release late Monday that they wouldn’t reveal it unless criminal charges were filed.

Days later, there were still no answers. Firegeezer adds:

Along with the mystery of what the chemical is, there is a disconnect between the agencies about who should be leading the investigation into the cause. The State Police have signed off on the investigation because there is no evidence that a crime has been committed. The Dept. of Environmental Protection has packed up and gone home after determining there was no contamination in the equipment, clothing or air, adding that they were not the “lead agency” in the investigation.

The railroad police have stopped investigating because there is no evidence that the hobo was ever on a train or came into contact with any chemicals on a railroad car.

Ultimately, the transient, though reported to be “in critical condition” was released from the hospital a mere 18 hours later and never heard from again. From the News Item:

Nicholas Brooks, 27, no home address, who was listed in critical condition Tuesday and in stable condition at 9 a.m. Wednesday, was then released at 11 a.m. Wednesday from Lehigh Valley Hospital (LHV), a spokesperson said.

Citing privacy laws, Brian Downs, LVH director of media relations, said the hospital could not comment on the treatment of Nicholas Brooks, or if the chemical suspected of causing the burn was determined.

Brooks’ condition was not checked Monday because his name had not been released to the media. His critical status was first obtained from the hospital Tuesday evening, more than 24 hours after his arrival. Just 18 hours after that, however, he had been discharged, adding another chapter to a bizarre story.

The Railroad Police were suspiciously tight-lipped, while the State Police were unusually reticent in their investigation:

Norfolk Southern Corp., which operates the Buffalo Line through Herndon, has disputed Brooks’ story from the start, suggesting there is no evidence that he was on one of its trains. The company has not addressed The News-Item’s request for basic information about what chemicals the company transports or how or if a railroad hitch-hiker could be exposed to a substance.

Asked Wednesday if the railroad had interviewed Brooks or if it had any new information on the case, public relations director Rudy Husband said “no” to both.

Sgt. Sean McGinley, commander at the Stonington state police barracks, could not be reached late Wednesday afternoon to see if police had interviewed Brooks.

McGinley and Husband were in disagreement Tuesday as to who is leading the investigation. Husband had said the railroad police were merely supporting the state police probe, but McGinley said the trooper dispatched to the scene was told that Gary Mullen, the railroad special agent called to the scene, said he would be assuming control of the potential trespass violation, to include follow up interviews with Brooks.

McGinley said police investigators were unable to discredit Brooks’ claim of being on a train, and so left the probe in Norfolk Southern’s hands. McGinley, after first saying police would not release Brooks’ name unless criminal charges were filed, did issue the name to The News-Item Tuesday after learning the railroad was apparently not investigating.

Meanwhile, attempts to learn more about Brooks through anything from Facebook to various criminal databases have been unsuccessful, and his whereabouts are unknown.

Alright, so it’s not a rain of frogs or ball lightning, but that’s still pretty weird, right? Three and a half years later, we are no closer to unraveling this mystery. Too bad the East End Irregulars weren’t on the scene to get to the bottom of this one, as they did in the “Miasma” case.

And how does that one end? If you want to find out, buy the book!

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