Noxious fumes in NorthTown mall sent at least 36 people to the hospital Sunday afternoon and prompted a massive evacuation.
None of the injuries was believed to be life-threatening. According to a statement from Spokane police, many of the complaints involved eye, nose and throat irritation, as first reported on spokesmanreview.com.The shopping center is expected to reopen today.
The source of the problem remains a mystery, though rescue workers suspect it was caused when a small amount of pepper spray was released outside The Gap clothing store on the mall’s second level shortly before 3 p.m., said Spokane Fire Chief Bobby Williams. Although some shoppers and mall employees had been told it was a natural gas leak, Williams said that possibility had been ruled out.
The first rescuers at the scene noticed a mild irritant in the air, but their chemical detection devices registered nothing unusual, Williams said. The devices would be able to detect pepper spray, natural gas or any number of other chemical fumes.
“Our detectors found absolutely nothing,” Williams said. “I don’t know if we’ll ever know.”
The mall’s heavy-duty ventilation system likely sucked up any irritant shortly after it was discharged, Williams said.
Mall security guards have since begun reviewing security camera footage for anything suspicious. Nothing was found during the initial review late Sunday afternoon, Williams said. Spokane police are also reviewing tapes and interviewing victims.
The evacuation order snarled the already thick traffic on Division Street, cut short movies and created chaos for hundreds of shoppers, but Williams insisted it was the right call to make. First responders saw some people struggling to breathe. There was no idea if this was a prank or something more sinister.
“Our decision was to err on the side of getting people out,” Williams said.
The mall remained closed Sunday, but employees were allowed to return to their shops, kiosks and cafes two hours after the evacuation to retrieve personal belongings and secure their businesses for the night.
The evacuation was surprisingly orderly, according to mall employees.
Brent Schultz, who works at the 12-screen cinema complex, said workers went from theater to theater telling people to leave. No alarms were sounded anywhere in the mall. The movies continued playing as the theaters emptied, he said.
“People were calm,” Schultz said, adding that patrons may return to the theater today for a refund, so long as they have a ticket stub or receipt.
Michael Martin and Jessica Benyole, employees at a Cricket cell phone sales kiosk, said a worker at a neighboring business told them to evacuate.
“We were in the middle of a sale and had to leave everything behind,” said Benyole, who had been feeling light-headed shortly before the evacuation.
“We thought they were joking,” Martin said.
The two stood just outside the doors to the mall, which were roped off by yellow security tape. A few stragglers continued to leave the mall, including a pizza shop employee who carried a stack of pizza boxes and offered slices to anyone within earshot.
Mead resident Frank Malone was sipping a latte and reading a book at Barnes and Noble when an employee told him to leave immediately. Many people spent at least an hour getting out of the parking garage. Malone didn’t bother trying to leave. He just sat and watched the massive rescue scene unfold.
“I’m impressed. They did a good job,” Malone said. “It looks like there’s some adult leadership here.”
The emergency response included eight fire engines, about two dozen firefighters, 20 police officers and at least five ambulances. A city bus was also dispatched to the mall to make sure no one was stranded.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve had anything of this magnitude happen,” Williams said.
According to estimates by mall security, between 200 and 300 shoppers are in the shopping center on a typical Sunday this time of year. The estimate does not include those at the movie theaters.