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Saturday August 29th, 2015 10:39AM

Club Escape incident termed 'act of terrorism'

By Rob Moore Reporter
HELEN - Helen public safety officials are giving new context to last week's property damage incident at Club Escape.

"It was actually a terrorist event," Helen Fire Chief Lee Poteat told the city commission Tuesday.

Monday morning, Oct. 28, Helen Police Investigator Cpl. Ricky Gunter responded to a property damage report at the upstairs nightclub, located on Main Street. When he entered the building, Gunter suffered chemical burns to his hands and symptoms of inhalation that required medical treatment.

Elaborating on his classification of the incident, Poteat said, "You had somebody who had a purpose of creating harm to a structure and/or personnel and it obstructs the government," Poteat said. "That's the textbook definition of a terrorist act."

While no definitive announcement has been made about the chemical(s) involved, officials have said it is suspected to be muriatic acid because two containers labeled as such were found inside the scene.

Poteat explained that muriatic acid is basically hydrochloric acid diluted with water, and is used to clean bricks, concrete and other surfaces.

"Basically, we had a hazardous material release, which ultimately resulted in the injury of one of our police officers," Poteat said.

Helen Police Chief Jim Couch also weighed in on the incident, which now has been turned over entirely to the White County Sheriff's Office for investigation.

Poteat told the commission how stressed the city's small police and fire departments were during the prolonged Club Escape call.

"This is an incident that we as a governmental agency need to learn from," Poteat said. "It was very taxing."

Couch said his department currently is not equipped for chemical/biological incidents.

"The problem we had is our officers have no Tyvek suits, we have no respirators," Couch said.

Poteat reminded the commission to not think this was a one-time incident.

"If it happens once, it's going to happen again - and this is a very, very, very small-scale wakeup," Poteat said. "Unfortunately, we got somebody hurt. On a large scale, there are going to be a lot more people hurt."

Poteat said the incident gives him, Couch and city officials an opportunity to look at ways to improve response, and to be better equipped.

"We've got to look at providing protection for our visitors and our residents," Poteat said.

Couch said the police department doesn't need to invest in elaborate hazardous materials equipment.

"I think we just need to do basic stuff on our side, just the basic Tyveks, the respirators, that sort of stuff that we can keep in each car in case this happens again," Couch said.

Couch praised Poteat and his department.

"It's a joy to work with him and his people, because we call them and they're there," Couch said. "Our working relationship has been excellent."

Couch said both departments have excellent personnel and that when he called in off-duty police officers last week, each dropped everything to come in to work without complaining.

"That is great," said Commissioner Dona K. Burke. "I think we have a very special little town."
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