The Hermann Schoening, a Liberian-registered German cargo ship, was on Lake Erie southwest of Port Colborne on Tuesday when 16 of the ship's 21 Chinese crew members became sick.
The crewmen, according to Canada Press, were vomiting violently, had extreme diarrhea, severe headaches and dizziness, and were unable to stand on their own, Port Colborne Chief Tom Cartwright said Wednesday.
The ship, en route to Montreal with a load of grain, had been fumigated in Milwaukee with a fumigant that contained phosphine gas, which leaked into the crew's quarters, Cartwright said.
"Quite frankly, if we hadn't acted on it, because of the type of leak it was, we probably would have had fatalities onboard the ship," Cartwright said.
The process of getting sick crew members to the hospital began Tuesday afternoon and stretched into early Wednesday. Health Canada, Transport Canada, a shipping company agency and local emergency services had conference calls throughout the evening. A chemist was flown in from Montreal, and a hazmat team was put on standby, Cartwright said.
The chemist quickly confirmed they were dealing with phosphine, and tugboats made their way to the ship about three miles off Port Colborne.
The crew members were carried over the side of the ship, down a rope ladder and into the tugboats, which took them ashore a process that took about an hour and ended at 3:30 a.m., Cartwright added.
The crew members walked to ambulances. They were treated in area hospitals and expected to be released.
Five shipmates remained onboard, including the captain. The source of the leak was found overnight, and a temporary fix was put in place so the five could remain aboard.