‘A free-floating chemical weapon’

Scuba diving, anyone?

Scuba diving, anyone?

Nothing seems unusual at first. Just a Monday afternoon poolside at Raging Waters water park at Cal Expo, just after 2 p.m. Hundreds of screaming, splashing patrons are afloat in a wave pool working on their sunburns when the water’s undulations slow and come to a sudden, chugging halt.

Soon, a strange green murkiness spreads through the water, followed by a choking chlorine odor. People start coughing as they paddle inner tubes toward the pool’s shallow end, prompted by a chorus of lifeguards’ sharp whistle blows.

This is only mildly disconcerting—until a young girl in a cherry-print swimsuit lays down on a chaise longue and begins dry-heaving.

Swimmers call lifeguards to her side. Immediately, it’s apparent that something serious is happening. Blue-gloved paramedics quickly evacuate the area, pool by pool, as people begin to complain of breathing difficulties.

Within 10 minutes, hundreds of soaked and swimsuit-clad patrons corral near Raging Waters’ entrance. There is no official announcement as to what actually happened, only growing fear and anxiety. Some parkgoers grab their belongings and make a dive for the exit, but the majority are barefoot and half-dressed, their personal effects safely tucked away in the lockers far beyond the established quarantine lines.

Hours go by. The sun is hot, and dehydrated and exhausted families start to shout and argue with park staff members, who appear as uneasy and uninformed as anybody else.

“The fire department is in charge,” a site manager repeats. “We are only the landlords.”

Officially, nothing is ever announced. Privately, security guards gossip that a concentrated chlorine bubble was released into the pool after a piece of equipment failed.

A tired and tattooed police officer on the scene described it more colorfully after the event: “Who knew what may have happened,” he says. “If it was chlorine gas in the air, it would have been like a free-floating chemical weapon.”

Analogy notwithstanding, 20 people, including nine children and three Raging Waters employees, end up hospitalized for respiratory problems.

A full three hours after the initial incident, people are finally permitted to retrieve their belongings. Upon leaving the park, exhausted but unharmed patrons are offered free day passes to use on a hopefully incident-free, future summer day.

With the odor of chlorine still fresh on the skin, the thought of returning is less than enticing.