Despondent Fla. man exposes responders to cyanide


By Dan Scanlan and Shakaya Andres
The Florida Times-Union

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — After 10 people were released after being treated for exposure to sodium cyanide, officials are still awaiting final test results on the substance to determine how it was used Thursday night at Mickler's Landing, police said this week.

A despondent man exposed himself and three people with him, as well as St. Johns County sheriff's deputies and paramedics, to the cyanide, which can be lethal in high doses.

"He mixed it with a fluid," Sheriff's Office spokesman Chuck Mulligan said Monday. "We don't know what fluid he mixed it with," but it caused the cyanide to escape as a gas. "He must have taken the lid of the container he had it in and inhaled it rather than digesting it."

The man, a 31-year-old Jacksonville resident, was detained under the Florida Mental Health Act, also known as the Baker Act, and held for 72 hours to undergo a temporary detention for a mental health evaluation and treatment, Mulligan said.

The state Department of Environmental Protection sent the sodium cyanide to a lab for additional testing, Mulligan said.

The aftermath of the late-night Thursday incident took some residents by surprise.

Warren Canada took a long sunny walk down Mickler Road on Friday morning with one goal in mind — taking a dip in the ocean at Mickler's Landing.

But after walking from his home near the Intracoastal Waterway to the beach parking lot, his access was blocked by yellow crime scene tape and St. Johns County deputies outside and a hazardous materials team inside. Many like him couldn't hit that beach until 1:30 p.m. Friday. Mickler's was closed.

"It's kind of alarming. I don't know much about cyanide other than knowing it's very deadly, so I hope those exposed parties are doing OK," said Canada, holding his T-shirt in one hand. "I am not really happy about it. I really wanted to get into the water. I may walk down to Guana if I can stand it."

Julington Creek resident Glenn Richards was headed to Mickler's Landing for the same reason — a sunny swim on his day off. He said he's worked with chemicals professionally, so the beach lot's shutdown and subsequent hazardous materials cleanup concerned him.

"Things get airborne and you don't know how far it is going to go," he said as he sat in his car near the closed gate. "It's shut down. But if it is going to make the area safe, then take care of it and close it. If it takes a week, whatever. We will just go to St. Augustine."

The Sheriff's Office said deputies found a compact sedan in the beach parking lot around 11:30 p.m. Thursday, with three men and woman inside. One man told them he was despondent and planned to harm himself with a jar of crystallized cyanide he had with him. Some of the jar's contents escaped, and county paramedics were called to check out the man when two deputies showed symptoms of chemical poisoning. A third deputy wearing protective gear removed the jar of what later tested positive as cyanide.

The county Fire and Rescue Department set up a decontamination operation for those who came in contact with the unnamed man. Five were taken to Baptist Medical Center-Beaches, while the despondent man, the woman who was with him and three paramedics went to St. Augustine's Flagler Hospital for treatment and decontamination. DEP moved in to continue decontamination.

Don Moziak, DEP's emergency response specialist, said the agency locked up the jar, labeled it cyanide and called in its contracted hazardous material disposal company.

"The officers involved in the incident did not detect anything initially, either a vapor or a gas, and we did not see anything on the [car] floors. We just did a cursory decontamination of the vehicles for them," Moziak said. "We checked the ground around the vehicles and around where they treated the victim and did not see any signs of contamination."

The federal Centers for Disease Prevention and Control's Emergency Response Safety and Health Database says sodium cyanide releases hydrogen cyanide gas, "a highly toxic chemical asphyxiant that interferes with the body's ability to use oxygen." Because of that, the DEP's contractor wore a sealed environmental suit to clean up the area.

"I am not seeing anything on the ground. Based on where I am finding the chemical, where the guy was, everything was isolated near that vehicle," Moziak said.

Deputies told dozens of prospective beachgoers through Friday morning that the beach access was closed. Behind the taped-off gate, the man's Ford and three police cruisers were parked with doors and trunks open, a decontamination shower nearby.

A cleanup crew bagged the deputies' bulletproof vests while plastic bags with the contaminated deputies' badges, name tags and notebooks, as well as a bucket with cleaned two-way radios and flashlights, were brought out to waiting deputies.

The cyanide bottle was taken away for disposal, Moziak said.

Copyright 2009 The Florida Times-Union

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