More than a dozen people were injured in an eastern Baltimore County liquor store when a device thought to be a birthday novelty turned out to be a military-style tear gas grenade and exploded.
A police spokesman said today the incident was a prank and no criminal charges would be filed.
Sgt. Stephen Doarnberger said, however, investigators were attempting to find out if more of the devices were in the store.
Police said that James Narutowicz, 61, owner of Mickey's package goods and liquors in the 5200 block of North Point Blvd., was working behind the counter about 5:25 p.m. yesterday when a patron entered and asked to buy some balloons and candles for his daughter's birthday party.
Mr. Narutowicz gave the man a brown-colored device with red serial numbers and told him that if he pulled the pin the device would play "Happy Birthday," police said.
Police said the patron, John Burkane, 42, of the 1100 block of Royston Place in Bel Air, took the device over to several of his friends and pulled the pin. The device exploded in Mr. Burkane's hands, filling the store with stinging tear gas and smoke, said police.
At least 30 patrons, some in a near-panic, quickly left the store, police said, many of them rubbing their eyes from the pain of the tear gas. Most of the patrons, police said, were Bethlehem Steel Co. workers, there to cash their checks.
Four patrons, including Mr. Burkane, were taken by ambulance to Francis Scott Key Medical Center, where they were treated for tear gas poisoning or minor lacerations and released.
Three of the others were identified as James Henson, 42, of the 3500 block of W. Garrison Ave. in Baltimore, Pamela Stoddard, 36, of the 2100 block of Graythorn Road in Baltimore County, and a 13-year-old Baltimore County girl.
Eleven others were treated at the scene for tear gas irritation or medical treatment.
Officials said they did not know where the device came from but were continuing to investigate.
The store owner's son, Michael Narutowicz, 22, said that he arrived at work about 15 minutes after the incident and that the area around the building looked like a scene from a plane crash.
"There was smoke coming out of the store, several fire engines all around the place and a bunch of ambulances," he said.
He said the store was closed for two hours to remove food and containers contaminated by the gas and to ventilate the place.