Mix of ammonia, bleach sends people scrambling

Staff Writer

Last update: July 04, 2005

DAYTONA BEACH -- Customers dropped their groceries and ran coughing and sneezing out of the Wal-Mart Supercenter on Beville Road after a strong chemical smell wafted through the store Sunday.

Reaction to the smell caused 26 people to be taken to nearby hospitals with minor respiratory problems, and many more were treated on the curb outside the store at 1101 Beville Road while members of Volusia County's hazardous materials team tracked down the cause of the smell.

Wal-Mart employees said ammonia and bleach had been spilled in the back of the store near a men's restroom about 3 p.m. The acrid fumes spread through parts of the building, causing many customers to cough and sneeze, they said.

When Wal-Mart managers discovered the smell, an announcement was made over the public address system asking customers to leave.

"Nobody believed us," one employee said. "People were still buying stuff."

Grace Mary Mitchell of Daytona Beach sat in the nail salon in the front of the store when her niece began sneezing.

"She said she felt like she was thirsty so I went to get a bottle of water and people were screaming and running outside," Mitchell said.

After about 10 minutes, customers and employees had all scrambled out of the store and into the summer heat.

"I came inside and they said it was a chemical smell. They wouldn't let me in," said Rosemary Castro of Daytona Beach, who stood for about an hour outside the building after it was evacuated.

Employees and customers stripped to their underwear and were hosed down by firefighters outside the store behind a silver tarp. They were then covered in blue disposable blankets and sent to the hospital.

"We don't want to send contamination out of this area," Daytona Beach fire spokesman Lt. John King said.

Ambulances took 26 people to Halifax Medical Center in Daytona Beach and Florida Hospital Ormond Memorial in Ormond Beach, EVAC spokesman Mark O'Keefe said. Several others drove to the hospital in their own cars.

The customers and Wal-Mart employees taken to the hospital complained of nausea, vomiting and difficulty breathing and ranged in age from 20 to 73 years old, King said.

Medical workers at Halifax Medical Center treated 15 patients, all of whom complained of minor respiratory problems, hospital spokeswoman Kate Holcomb said. They were all listed in stable condition and their injuries were not considered life-threatening, she said.

King likened the chemical contamination to pepper spray in the air. The ventilation system was shut down to prevent the vapors from spreading, he said.

The store was closed for several hours while fire investigators and the Volusia County Hazmat team, which is culled from fire departments across the county, worked to determine the cause of the smell.

King said the team believed the odor came from either vapor from an automotive battery that was being tested, or a mixture of cleaning solvents.

Some employees stood in the parking lot waiting to go back in the store, while others walked to nearby Sam's Club for sodas and air conditioning.

The store reopend to the public about 6:30 p.m.

Anyone who left personal belongings in the store may retrieve them from the Daytona Beach Police Department, 990 Orange Ave.