Purple T-Shirt Event

On March 19, 1991, following the cease fire, personnel from NMCB-24 required medical attention after becoming exposed to unidentified airborne noxious fumes. These fumes resulted in acute symptoms, such a burning throats, eyes and noses, and difficulty in breathing. In addition, portions of their brown T-shirts turned purple. It was also reported that portions of some of these same individuals’ combat boots also turned purple.[49]

The incident occurred at approximately 1415 hours local and involved three separate groups of NMCB-24 personnel. Five individuals composed the first group, which was working on equipment in the Alpha Yard (a motor pool located adjacent to Camp 13).[50] Group two was two medical personnel, who were emptying sand bags inside Camp 13.[51] A third group was identified through eyewitness interviews and was composed of two other NMCB-24 personnel.[52] This third group experienced the same incident, but did not report it to the safety officer and did not report to the medical department for treatment. Both of these individuals have been interviewed. One individual could not remember the incident. The second individual remembers donning his mask and continuing to work.

The position of each of the three groups was such that if one drew a line connecting their locations, the axis would be oriented roughly North to South as shown in Figure 9. Each group was separated from the adjacent group by about 0.25 km for a total spread of about 0.5 km from North to South. Figure 9 depicts the relative positions of the three "purple T-shirt" groups, the prevailing wind direction, and the location of air monitoring station number 1.[53]

Figure 9. Purple T-Shirt Groups

The NMCB 24 personnel who were involved in the incident stated they experienced a choking sensation when a "noxious" cloud enveloped them. None of the affected personnel saw the origin of the gas cloud, but all believed the cloud came from one of the industrial plants located near Camp 13 as shown in Figure 10. Although they all agreed that the odor was not ammonia, each person described the odor differently -- chlorine, battery acid, nitric acid, methyl ethyl ketone. All experienced the same symptoms; all had their T-shirts change color. According to one eyewitness, "the areas of our T-shirts that were soaked with sweat slowly began to turn the most beautiful shade of purple I ever saw."[54] All personnel, except for those in group 3, immediately sought medical attention and, after showering and changing clothes, returned to work with no further symptoms.

 

Figure 10. Camp 13 and Surrounding Industries

As stated earlier, none of individuals who were exposed to the noxious gas cloud saw where it came from. A Master Chief Equipment Operator (EQCM) from NMCB-24 was interviewed by telephone. This individual supervised the construction of Fleet Hospital-15, and worked on earth stabilization projects at KAANB. To date, the Chief is the only eyewitness that has positively identified the source of the noxious cloud. His comments concerning the purple T-shirt incident are summarized as follows:

There was an industrial accident connected with the purple T-shirt incident. The wind blew from the NW to the SE all of the time. It almost never changed. NMCB-24 studied the wind patterns, as they were concerned about gas attacks. The day of the purple T-shirt incident, the Chief was working at a site that was north of Al Jubayl. He returned to Camp 13 to check on equipment that had broken down. Immediately after stepping out of his vehicle at the Alpha yard, he saw purple dust falling everywhere. He could see it coming from a smokestack at the fertilizer plant. The winds changed 180 degrees when it dumped it on him. There were nose bleeds and there was gagging. He had a nose bleed. Although acid was stored in the Alpha yard, he does not recall a battery explosion at any time.[55]

When interviewed, NMCB-24 medical personnel stated that the contaminated clothing was bagged and turned over to the Marines (either 3d NCR or IMEF personnel), and a group of Saudi Arabian officials. Those individuals conducted an environmental/occupational hazard investigation after the incident. NMCB-24 medical personnel stated they were not aware of any official report that was prepared upon completion -- of the investigation. But they were aware that the unit received a telephone report supposedly from the same individuals who conducted the study -- to inform the unit that there were no problems and nothing to worry about. [56] Investigators are attempting to locate any report generated by either U.S. or Saudi Arabian officials relating to the analysis of the purple T-shirts. However, because a chain of custody for the T-shirts cannot be identified, it is unlikely that investigators will be able to determine the identity of the Marines or Saudi officials who took possession of the T-shirts, or to locate any reports that may have been prepared. A request for information concerning this event has been transmitted to the United States Defense Attach´┐Ż Office, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

This incident has been associated with the possible release of fumes from a nearby industry or a localized chemical spill in the Alpha Yard that could have caused the T-shirts to turn purple. The U.S. Navy's Environmental and Preventive Medicine Unit No. 2 (EPMU-2) conducted an environmental/occupational hazard investigation and site visit of Al Jubayl in 1994. [57] EPMU-2 personnel toured Camp 13 and local industries, as well as meeting with members of the Royal Saudi Arabian Ministry of Health and managers of the local industries. This study noted that the air quality in Al Jubayl was monitored throughout ODS/DS. Records from the Saudi Arabian government indicate that the air quality of Al Jubayl was maintained within acceptable limits throughout ODS/DS. In addition, records from Air Monitoring Station No. 1 for March 19, 1991, do not indicate the detection of any noxious airborne fumes that exceeded normal parameters acceptable for this area (see Tab E).

The EPMU-2 study could not determine the source of the irritant. However, their report did note that the camp was located in a heavily industrialized area. It stated that emissions from a petrochemical plant or from the motor park itself may have been the source of the irritant. Eyewitnesses stated that at the time of this incident, the winds were blowing out of the North, from the direction of the fertilizer plant.

In July 1993, the U.S. Army Material Test Directorate, White Sands Missile Range, conducted tests on a T-shirt in an attempt to identify the cause of damage to the shirt.[58] The rationale for this second test and the requesting agency is not known at this time. The T-shirt was believed to be similar to the ones that turned purple but its actual origin is not known. The T-shirt had numerous small holes on its front and back. A Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) was used to analyze damage to the shirt's fibers. The SEM analysis could not determine what specifically caused the damage to the T-shirt in question. However, the cause of the damage appeared to be chemical in nature. The test directorate had conducted a similar study in 1988. During this earlier study, fabric was exposed to various concentrations of sulfuric acid. The damaged fiber ends of the current T-shirt sample exhibit similar damage to those fibers exposed to sulfuric acid in the 1988 study.

A third study was done by Natick Research Development and Engineering Center in Natick, MA, at the request of the Defense Science Board. Natick conducted analyses of T-shirts that were similar to those that had turned purple at Camp 13. The T-shirts were furnished by one of the NMCB-24 members whose T-shirt turned purple. It is not known whether these shirts were actually worn during ODS/DS. These tests showed that brown military T-shirts of the type worn during ODS/DS do turn purple when exposed to acids, such as sulfuric (battery) acid and nitric/nitrous oxides from nitric acid.[59]

Findings of the Purple T-Shirt Event

On March 19, 1991, nine personnel from Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 24 (NMCB-24) were working at Camp 13 and were exposed to unidentified airborne noxious fumes. Although it has not been verified, the source of the fumes appears to be a fertilizer plant located near Camp 13. This exposure caused acute medical symptoms and caused portions of these individuals' T-Shirts and combat boots to turn purple in color.

At least seven of the nine personnel reported to the medical facility for treatment. After showering and changing their clothes all five returned to duty with no further symptoms. the two individuals who did not report to the medical facility simply continued to work and did experience the acute medical symptoms as the others. The shirts and boots that changed color were given to unnamed U.S. and Saudi officials and have never been recovered. Analyses of T-Shirts that are similar to those worn during the war show that the shirts can change color when exposed to acids, such as sulfuric (battery) acid and nitric/nitrous oxides from nitric acid.

Assessment of the Purple T-Shirt Event

Based on the information that is available to date, our assessment is that chemical warfare agents were "Definitely Not" involved in the Purple T-Shirt event. This assessment is based upon the following information:

 

The Purple T-shirt event served to highlight that Al Jubayl was a heavily industrialized city. This heavy concentration of industries meant that personnel who lived and worked in Al Jubayl could possibly have been exposed to a variety of industrial chemicals. During interviews of personnel who were stationed in Al Jubayl, investigators asked for each person’s impression of Al Jubayl’s environment. As might be expected, investigators received both positive and negative comments. To provide as clear a picture as possible of Al Jubayl and the surrounding area, the last section of this case narrative discusses Al Jubayl’s environment.


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