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Mystery fumes leave Church St patrons sputtering

It was a busy Saturday night in the gaybourhood when patrons in two of the bars on the Church St strip were exposed to mysterious noxious fumes — serious enough for Toronto Public Health to advise that anyone in the bars at the time of the incidents seek medical attention.

It was around 11:20pm on Apr 28 when Michael Graydon walked into the Church St leather bar The Black Eagle and got a lung-full of… something.

“I breathed in,” says Graydon. “There was this burning. I looked up and said, ‘What’s that?’

“Then it really hit us, so I just kind of went for the door, I grabbed someone and said, ‘We have to get out of here.’ I wasn’t throwing up, but I was spitting up and coughing.”

Although the bar was evacuated and kept clear for at least 25 minutes — “the bar was very good about getting people out,” says Graydon — no one on staff called the police or 911.

It might have been written off as some odd mechanical malfunction — Graydon’s guess at the time — if a similar incident hadn’t happened approximately 10 minutes later across the street at O’Grady’s.

“All I know,” says an O’Grady’s staff member who wasn’t there that night, and declined to give her name, “is someone sprayed pepper spray in the vents.” Staff members who had been on duty that Saturday night were unavailable for interviews.

“No comment right now,” was all the owner of O’Grady’s, known on the street as Jimmy G, when reached by phone almost a week after the incident.

Though someone at O’Grady’s did call the police during the evacuation, 51 Division has since dismissed it as either a “joke” or an “accident,” in the words of Staff Sgt Stan Belza, and have decided not to investigate.

Det Const Brian Clark at the hate crimes unit says he’ll have to wait for a report to come through on the incidents before he can look into them.

“There can be a number of explanations for that,” he says, “but it’s something that’s worth revealing.”

Do the incidents bear the hallmarks of a hate crime? “I would think that there’s a possibility there, for sure,” says Clark.

The reason the incidents — which left Graydon and dozens of others with burning mouths and lungs, in Graydon’s case lasting about eight hours — aren’t being taken more seriously remains a mystery.

Graydon, a grad student who has since returned to Ottawa, offered his theory about why the bars are keeping mum.

“If you look at the history of the gay community over the last 50 years the bars have always put their interests as businesses first. Many are great, HIV really brought them onside but, like any business, they tend to be cautious [about] image, making trouble, etc.”

Jim Chan of Toronto Public Health had not heard about the incidents, and says his department couldn’t do anything until someone — a patron who was there that night or a member of staff — called and reported it. But even then, he says it’s highly unlikely public health would be able to figure out exactly what happened this long afterward.

However, from the description of its effects it seems clear that whatever the gas was, it wasn’t pepper spray, which invariably aggravates the eyes and nose. The unidentified gas “sounds like it’s some sort of ammonia-based chemical,” says Cpl Doug Brayley of the West Shore division of the RCMP in Victoria, where a pepper spray attack affected a local restaurant earlier in April, adding that recipes for such substances can be found on-line.

Though the BC RCMP were happy to talk, a call to Const Tracey Latimer, the force’s queer liaison officer, was not returned.

No other witnesses have come forward and there have been no reports of serious injuries as a result of the mysterious gas. Whether it was a prank, a hate crime or two coincidental ventilation system malfunctions remains unclear. Without further investigation by bar owners or police, it’s likely to remain so.