TEN people were treated for breathing difficulties after a suspected chemical leak at a shop in Henley.
The town centre was brought to a standstill as the emergency services rushed to the WH Smith store in Bell Street on Wednesday afternoon.
Staff and customers were evacuated and could be seen in the road coughing while covering their mouths with their eyes streaming. Some eyewitnesses said they were struggling to breath.
One woman said she noticed a chemical-like smell in the air and police said there had a report that “something had gone off” in the shop.
Paramedics treated casualties at the roadside and no one was taken to hospital.
Three fire engines and three ambulance crews and a number of specialist emergency vehicles were called to the scene after the alarm was raised at about 2.35pm.
Police set up a 200m cordon, shutting Bell Street from the junction with Hart Street at Monsoon to beyond the Waitrose exit and traffic was diverted through Market Place.
The shops on both sides of the road between these two points were evacuated and WH Smith was sealed off. Workmen on the roof of Boots were also evacuated. Waitrose was closed and staff gathered in the car park.
Crowds gathered at either end of the cordon as shoppers, town centre workers wondered what was happening. Police were quick to rule out any terrorism link.
The area remained closed for almost four hours as the emergency services tried to discover the cause of the “leak” but they said later that nothing “untoward” had been found in a search of the shop.
Ian Barnes, 47, of Goodall Close, Henley, was in WH Smith when he was caught up on the drama.
He said: “I was walking through the store and I got half way through when I started to lose my breath and my throat was burning.
“I seemed to walk into it. I didn't smell or see anything, it was just hard to breathe and I had a burning throat.
“I left as quickly as I could. A lot of people left with me and all of us were coughing and having a hard time breathing. Then the store was shut and all the ambulances turned up.
“I was there with three or four other people plus the staff. We all seemed to have had a similar experience. I had a full medical check-up and we were told to stay in touch until they’d confirmed what it was.”
Rebecca Boniface, who works at Chilton Watson opticians, said: “There were lots of people coughing and spluttering and people started streaming out of the shops.
“The ambulance turned up and people thought there was definitely something coming from the shop.
“I couldn't smell anything and I didn't feel ill but I know at least one lady was quite poorly.
“All of a sudden we were evacuated and didn't know when we’d be let back in.”
Jill Buckett, who works in Robert Dyas, said: “The girls came out and they were coughing and said
‘something’s happening inside’. Their eyes were streaming and they couldn’t breathe hardly.
“They was quite a strong chemical smell but we didn’t know what it was.”
Lisa Allen, who works in White Stuff, said: “I noticed three women open the doors and rush out.
“The manager explained there was some kind of fumes or chemicals and said they had to get everybody out.
“They were all coughing and they all had their WH Smith jackets over their mouths.”
Carol Giles, who works at the Temptations gift shop, said: “A lady came in to our shop saying she couldn't breathe very well in WH Smith.
“We were a bit nosy and went to have a look when the fire engines came and we heard sirens.
“It was quite a while before anyone told us anything and then the police arrived and turfed us out.”
Neil Tankard, deputy manager at Sainsburys in Bell Street, arrived for his shift 2.30pm and was asked to evacuate his store almost immediately.
He said: “The firefighters came in and said we needed to evacuate and then go behind the cordon. All the WH Smith staff were in the ambulances being checked over.”
Mr Tankard said he was told that “some kind of gas” had been let off in WH Smith.
Bell Street and Duke Street were both re-opened shortly after 6pm.
Stuart Garner, premises risk and protection manager at Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue Service, said: “Fire and rescue service and South Central Ambulance Service specialist teams wearing protective equipment and using monitoring devices searched the store in an attempt to identify any gas or chemicals present. Nothing untoward has been discovered.
“Ten persons were checked at the scene by the ambulance service and have all subsequently been released.
“If any members of the public who were in the store at the time believe they are suffering any ill effects, they are advised to call 111.”
Police are the fire service are continuing to investigate the cause and are thought to be working on the theory that a gas or chemical was released inside WH Smith. They will analyse the store’s CCTV footage.
Incident commander Marcus Reay, from Henley fire station, said: “Although our specialist crews detected nothing untoward on their equipment, Thames Valley Police are continuing to investigate what may have occurred in the store to cause staff and some members of the public these ill effects.
“Due to the type of incident, we were faced with it was necessary to put in a safety cordon around the incident in Bell Street.
“I would like to thank the business owners and our colleagues from Thames Valley Police who worked with fire service crews to make the evacuation of people in the area happen in a calm and timely manner.”