A chemical spilled from a backpack at West Berkeley’s REI store Wednesday afternoon forced the evacuation of scores of customers and employees.
The red liquid spilled from the backpack of a customer after he submitted it for security screening just inside the entrance to the large facility at 1338 San Pablo Ave.
Within seconds, everyone standing nearby—at least 25 people—began coughing and choking as fumes from the fluid hit the air, said Deputy Fire Chief Gil Dong.
A 911 call brought firefighters to the scene, along with their hazardous materials (HazMat) team and paramedics.
Ambulances began to arrive within minutes, transporting five victims to the Alta Bates Summit Medical Emergency facility in Berkeley.
None appeared to be seriously injured.
Store employees and customers flooded out into the store’s parking lot, where firefighters quickly strung emergency tape to seal off the scene.
The deputy fire chief said a firefighter had asked the man who brought the pack into the store to wait at the scene.
“They allowed the guy to walk away,” said one irate customer. “The Fire Department just watched him walk away,” said Michael Kauzer, who had been shopping at the outdoor supplier with his family.
“We didn’t know what he was carrying, and they just let him go along with his pack. That’s ridiculous.”
Dong acknowledged that the suspect had left, adding that the Fire Department has no power to detain suspects at the scene.
“We’re not peace officers,” he said.
The suspect, described by Kauzer as a man “who appeared to be homeless and carrying everything he owned on his back,” was wearing noise-canceling headphones.
“He appeared to be about 40,” Kauzer said. “When I last saw him, he was walking south on San Pablo.”
“I went up to one of the firefighters and asked him to stop the guy, but they just let him go. So I still don’t know what my family and I were exposed to.”
The deputy fire chief said he believes the chemical the man was carrying may have been some type of pepper spray.
“We can’t be sure until we have it analyzed,” he said.
The department was planning to take a sample to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, where Dong said he hoped a spectrometer analysis would determine the precise nature of the noxious compound.
Berkeley police fanned out from the scene in search of the man, though no arrests had been made by deadline.
One firefighter said he suspected the man had been in the store in search of a new container for the liquid.
In addition to the five people sent to the emergency room, paramedics had asked three others to go, but they refused, said the deputy chief.
The crowd of employees and customers waited behind the Fire Department tape for word that the store was safe to enter.
“We’re not going to let anyone back in until we can check the air and determine that’s it’s safe” Dong said.