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Respiratory symptoms cause evacuation at lunch for homeless veterans

By Staff | Mar 11, 2010

The source of any substance that may have caused respiratory symptoms for veterans attending a weekly lunch at a North Fort Myers church on Wednesday is undetermined, officials said.
Fort Myers Fire Department Hazmat Team concluded its investigation into the scare and subsequent evacuation at All Souls Church without ascertaining a causing agent.
More than 150 people were evacuated at approximately 11 a.m. during the weekly lunch for veterans who are homeless after at least eight reported burning eyes, coughing, and other problems.
No evidence of a specific substance or a person of interest could be determined, officials said.
“The call came in at 11:06 a.m.,” said North Fort Myers Fire Chief Terry Pye, who spearheaded response to the incident. “Several people were having respiratory problems.”
“Several people in line (for food) were sneezing and coughing and their eyes were watering, like they inhaled pepper, but it wasn’t everyone,” said Sara Cacciolfi, who is from Lee County Homeless Veterans, and organizes the lunch each week.
She said she had no symptoms.
“But we got everyone outside.”
By 11:35 a.m., it was reported that eight people had been taken to an area hospital, but later in the day, officials said three had not been transported to the hospital because they said they felt fine after a brief period.
There also were reports that a contaminant was on the grounds.
“There was a suspicious white powder found in the building, and no one from the church could verify how it got there. We called in the City of Fort Myers Hazmat Team who tested the substance. It was determined that it was either a construction adhesive or a cleaning agent. It would not cause those symptoms,” said Pye.
Early on, there were also unconfirmed reports that someone someone had sprayed pepper spray or mace into the air ducts, but that theory was also ruled out.
“But if you get a roomful of people, five of them get sick, it’s a red flag,” said Pye of the evacuation.
If someone did spray mace into the air, a few people near the discharge could get these symptoms, Pye said, although that cannot be substantiated.
“We turned the church back over to the pastor.”