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Pepper Spray Ruled an Accident

September 02, 2004|From Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Pepper spray was released in a downtown office building during Wednesday's lunch hour, but police called it an accident and stressed that it was not terrorism-related.

First responders initially treated it as a "mass casualty" incident. They sent about two dozen emergency vehicles to the scene, established a triage center in a nearby park and closed several streets.

A girl in a youth group was wearing a small container of pepper spray on a chain around her neck, said Police Chief Charles Ramsey. When a boy grabbed for the chain, he touched the container and triggered the spray. "Once it's out, people inhale it, and you've got a problem," Ramsey said.

Fire Department spokesman Alan Etter said they assessed 130 people and treated five on the scene. One person was transported to a hospital with what Etter described as complications from asthma.

The spray was released inside a building at 1990 K St., which runs one city block south to I Street. It is also about two blocks from the World Bank, which authorities said last month was a possible terrorism target.

Investigators said the spray was released in a public area on the second floor, which is home to some restaurants and has a food court-style seating area. Etter said the spray was able to get into the building's air-conditioning system and travel throughout the building, exposing more people.

Ramsey characterized the incident as an accident and not a prank. He stressed that it was not related to the "Code Orange" terrorism alert and did not represent a general threat. But initial reports sent the stock market into a temporary dive, with traders fearing it was terrorism.

"It did show a breach of security, and the market has not fully discounted something happening here on our shores," said Marc Pado, U.S. market strategist with Cantor Fitzgerald.

"We're able to shrug off news from Iraq, but not necessarily something from our backyard," Pado said. "I wouldn't quite call this a panic," he said, describing it as more of a "dramatic, knee-jerk reaction." The market later recovered.

But terrorism fears weren't limited to Wall Street.

"I had guys on their day off calling me, asking if they should come in," said Police Lt. Jeffrey Herold.

Authorities said no charges had been filed against the youngsters involved.

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