updated 6/29/2009 6:48:12 PM ET 2009-06-29T22:48:12

Three workers hired to clean a putrid well at a waste transfer station on Monday apparently were overcome by toxic fumes, fell down a narrow shaft and died, the fire department said.

Initially one worker went into the shaft, and the other two went in after him when he didn’t return, said John Sudnik, fire department deputy assistant chief of the Queens borough command. They all fell through the shaft and into the well.

The workers were hired to clean out a basin intended to catch water and waste from the transfer station, where garbage is sorted for recycling. The entrance to the basin is through a manhole 3 feet wide and 18 feet long. It isn’t clear how far they got down before they fell.

The men likely were overcome by hydrogen sulfide, a toxic gas common in wells like the one they were hired to clean, Sudnik said. The gas is created by water and decomposing garbage. About 100 parts per million of the gas in the air is considered incredibly dangerous, and crews were getting readings at the scene of 200 parts per million, Sudnik said.

Emergency crews got a call around 2:30 p.m. and were on the scene seven minutes later. By the time they reached the workers, they were dead, Sudnik said. It took about 20 minutes to pull them out.

The waste transfer station, called Royal Waste Services, is attached to the Regal Recycling company. A person who answered the phone there wouldn’t comment.

The transfer station is in an industrial stretch of Queens, with a dirt road leading to the facility, not far from a Long Island Rail Road station. The stench of garbage permeates the area. A sign saying “putrescible solid waste” and another that says “No drums, asbestos, hazardous materials, medical waste or tires” hang at the gate.

The names of the workers weren’t immediately released. The medical examiner will determine the causes of their deaths.

Abe Rosenthal, who said he was a friend of one of the victims, arrived on the scene with a rabbi after getting a call about the accident. He said his friend was the owner of the company and possibly died with a son who worked with him.

“I can’t believe what happened,” Rosenthal said. “He was the sweetest guy, a good father.”

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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