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Teen arrested in Safeway haz-mat incident

by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: KATIE WILSON - A firefighter steps outside of the Rent-A-Center in St. Helens March 6 where 30 people were waiting to be checked out by paramedics after they reported various symptoms including scratchy throats and difficulty breathing inside the Safeway grocery store next door. Police have arrested a teen they say sprayed mace into the air at the store. SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: KATIE WILSONPolice arrested a Rainier teenager they believe sprayed a canister of mace into the air at the St. Helens Safeway March 6, emptying the store and triggering a response from the regional Haz-Mat Team.

Elisha Kimberly Nichols, 18, now faces a barrage of charges, including 31 counts of fourth-degree assault, 31 counts of recklessly endangering another person, second-degree disorderly conduct and unlawful use of mace. A second person was also identified by investigators in connection to the incident and was referred to the Columbia County Juvenile Department. Since this person is younger than 18 years old, investigators would not release a name.

St. Helens Police Chief Steve Salle said he doesn't expect there will be other arrests.

“I believe we probably have all the evidence in hand,” he said, but added, “We never know until we're done. There are 31 victims yet to be interviewed.”

He would not go into detail about how investigators identified Nichols and the unnamed juvenile as suspects.

The mace, a chemical irritant more commonly used in self-defense to deter would-be assailants, made shoppers' eyes water and their throats feel scratchy. Emergency responders evacuated more than 100 people from the grocery store and and kept 31 people aside for medical treatment March 6. Multiple ambulances were on hand in the parking lot, but only one man required transport to the hospital and he was released later that same night.

Safeway employees who had been evacuated would not talk with the media, but customers who talked with reporters said the symptoms they experienced inside the grocery store disappeared almost as soon as they were away from the building.

At the time, Columbia River Fire and Rescue Chief Jay Tappan didn't know what had caused the symptoms. He walked through Safeway with the regional Haz-Mat Team, attempting to eliminate possible causes. He said the crew checked obvious sources for leaks as well as products containing ammonia that might have broken open. Everything was intact.

Realizing they could be dealing with an intentional act rather than an accident or a leak, they turned the investigation over to the police.

Cases like this are rare in Columbia County, Salle said. He can only recall one in his 34-year career and it happened so long ago he can no longer remember the details.

“Everything went well that night,” Tappan said about the Safeway incident. Multiple agencies responded immediately and the ambulances, though they ultimately went unused, were ready to go. Still, Tappan said, it reinforced the need to drill regularly for what responders term “mass casualty events” — or emergency situations involving large groups of people.

“Later, we thought, 'Wow, what if we'd had 30 very ill patients?'” Tappan said. “We'd have been on the run for sure.”