Eight hospitalized in Riley chemical spill


The emergency room at Riley Hospital for Children reopened Thursday evening after being locked down while Indianapolis firefighters investigated a chemical spill much of the day. The hospital's parking garage was also inspected.

Chief Gary Coons of the Indianapolis division of the Department of Homeland Security tells Eyewitness News a woman was visiting a patient at the hospital when she became sick. The woman was taken to the emergency room, where employees opened her purse to retrieve identification or information about the woman and noticed a foul odor coming from the purse.

The workers who opened the purse then began to get sick. The woman's purse was removed and nurses continued to treat the woman. Those hospital workers then started to get sick, prompting notification of the Department of Homeland Security.

"They said some kind of virus got brought in and it was making people sick," said Michelle Shrum of the only explanation she got Thursday when she couldn't get into Riley Hospital for Children to see her two-week-old son.

Instead, what Shrum saw outside spoke volumes. People were dressed in Hazmat suits. The Indiana National Guard, the Marion County Health Department and other emergency crews surrounded the emergency room, which was on lockdown.

"I panicked, 'cause I wanted to get to my son and they wouldn't let me," said Shrum.

Coons said the Marion County Health Department and the fire department didn't know what they were dealing with because their instruments came up blank when they tested the woman's purse and clothing.

The Indiana National Guard's Weapons of Mass Destruction Unit was called in to secure the woman's clothing and other items so they could be tested. A spokesperson with the National Guard said they also inspected the woman's car and found nothing.

Homeland Security says they can't ask the woman any questions because she herself is in critical condition at Methodist Hospital.

According to hospital support staff who didn't want to go on camera, employees put on masks when the hospital went into lockdown. Employees said some people complained of funny tastes in their mouth and tingling lips. These same workers told Eyewitness News they received emails from their managers asking them to watch for symptoms of dizziness, tingling lips and odd tastes in their mouths after they left the hospital.

Shrum said she saw employees wearing masks.

"Quite a few people were. They didn't never say anything about us wearing masks," she said.

Shrum said she was worried about what could have made its way into a hospital full of sick children and what that meant for her baby.

Earlier version

The first report came in a little after noon Thursday. Later in the afternoon, emergency vehicles rushed to the scene again, this time to the parking garage.

Dr. Jeff Sperring, Chief Executive Officer and President of Riley at IU Health, sent out this statement around 8 p.m. Thursday evening:

"Riley Hospital for Children has received clearance from external authorities to re-open the Emergency Department and is preparing to do so. We expect to resume normal operations in the ER later this evening."

Sperring had also released this statement earlier in the evening.

"Riley Hospital for Children is taking all precautionary measures in cooperation with our external officials to identify the source of exposure and ensure patient, staff and visitor safety. This includes a full inspection of the property, including parking garages. We are continuing to closely monitor the situation. Those affected were adults and have been transferred or discharged."

Initially, firefighters traced the source to a patient's bag in the ER, but they are still working to identify the substance. The ER went into lockdown shortly after noon and no one was allowed to leave.

A colonel with the Indiana National Guard tells Eyewitness News a woman came into the hospital with an unidentified issue, then others in the area began to show similar symptoms. The woman's clothing, car and other personal effects have been quarantined.

Four adults were taken to Methodist and Wishard Hospitals for treatment of conditions ranging from fair to serious. A small number of people were being evaluated inside two ambulances outside Riley Hospital.

By 2:15 pm, most ambulances and fire engines had left Riley and people were being allowed to enter and leave the building.

A family who was in the ER when the lockdown went into effect were allowed to leave at around 2:00 pm. They tell Eyewitness News that they weren't told much about what happened.

"Just saw lot of people. Just heard it was a Hazmat crisis or something," said one witness.

The incident led to some delayed appointments.

"We had an appointment at the Endocrinology Center at 3:00 pm. We came early and were stuck waiting," said another witness.

Firefighters went through the decontamination process as a precaution. Patients who were already in the ER were transferred to other hospitals.

Another witness told Eyewitness News she was there to visit her young cousin. A nurse told her that someone deliberately overturned a container, and that prompted the evacuation. It still isn't clear what the substance was.

The clothing of the people who were decontaminated will be sent to the lab for testing.

IU Health plans to release an update on the situation at 9 p.m. Thursday.

Riley Hospital for Children statement:

"External crews have yet to identify the exact source of the incident from earlier today at Riley Hospital for Children that sickened seven adults, however the area has been contained and we're seeing no evidence of any further spread. We continue to evaluate the situation and provide care to the adults who have been exposed. The Riley at IU Health Emergency Department remains closed temporarily, however all other normal hospital operations have resumed. Patients, staff and their families are being asked to use the Riley Outpatient Center and Simon Family Tower entrances. Emergency services are being diverted to Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital. We will provide another update at approximately 3:30 p.m.