LOUISVILLE, Ky. – A tear gas grenade exploded in a boy's hand while three children played with it in a southeastern Kentucky home, creating a powdery cloud that sent 20 people to hospitals, authorities said Tuesday.
Injuries included burning eyes, cuts and chemical irritation to the skin, said David McGill, emergency management coordinator in Harlan County. The gas grenade went off Monday evening in a home in the town of Lynch.
The three children were in an upstairs bedroom in their grandmother's home when they found the Vietnam-era grenade — slightly larger than a baseball — on a shelf, said Harlan County Sheriff Marvin Lipfird.
When one child pulled the pin, the grenade exploded in his hand, he said. Shrapnel flew and a yellow powdery cloud engulfed the room.
"They didn't look like Big Bird, they just got a heavy dose of it," the sheriff said.
The boy holding the grenade suffered cuts to his hand and face, he said.
His sister was struck above an eye by a grenade spring, he said. The girl was overcome by the chemical, fell and hit her head on a table. She was taken to a hospital in Kingsport, Tenn., where she was in stable condition, he said.
The other child was farther away from the grenade and was covered with the powder.
"It's just by the grace of God those young 'uns weren't severely injured or killed," Lipfird said in a phone interview.
Lipfird didn't know the ages of the children. He said he found shrapnel fragments the size of soft drink lids in the room.
Kentucky State Police Sgt. Jeremy Lee said the powdery substance irritates victims' throats, eyes and skin and causes difficulty in breathing, according to WYMT-TV in Hazard (http://bit.ly/pMXVeB), which first reported the accident.
Four others, including the grandmother, were exposed when they rushed to aid the children, Lipfird said. Another 13 suffered secondary exposure to the powdery substance as neighbors rushed to help the victims outside, he said.
Nineteen people were taken to a nearby hospital in Harlan, where they were treated and decontaminated, Lipfird said.
The grenade was brought into the house by two male relatives, Lipfird said.
The two men, identified as Jason and Tony North, found the military-style device while cleaning the outbuilding of a friend who had died, he said. The friend's widow told them they could keep anything that interested them.
The grandmother had resisted bringing the grenade into the house, but the men assured her it wasn't live ordnance, Lipfird said.
The grenade ended up in the upstairs bedroom where it was found by the children, he said.
"The kids got hold of it someway and were playing with it and it discharged," McGill said.
No charges were immediately filed, but an investigation continues.
Lipfird said he planned to meet with a local prosecutor to discuss the matter. Authorities were trying to determine whether it's legal to possess the grenade, he said.
Police at first thought a methamphetamine lab had blown up when alerted to the explosion.
Information from: WYMT-TV, http://www.wkyt.com/wymtnews