CSI Fur Fest: The Unsolved Case of the Gas Attack at a Furry Convention
In December 2014, chlorine gas sent 19 people at the Midwest FurFest convention to the hospital. But investigators and the furry community are still trying to piece together what exactly happened that night.
Photo by Tommy Bruce
It was after midnight on a Sunday when the fire alarm went ringing through the halls of Hyatt Regency hotel in Rosemont, Illinois. Phaedra Lewis had planned on ignoring it, figuring it had been innocently triggered by the smoke of a cigarette. Besides, it was cold outside and she was already in her pajamas, having stopped by a friend's room to hang out before going to bed.
She didn't know anything serious was happening until she was told by another hotel guest to evacuate immediately. With no time to grab a jacket, she fled to the nearest stairwell—and that's when the toxic odor hit her. "It smelled, for all the world, like the worst Pool Shock you've ever been around," she reminisces, referring to a type of pool cleaning chemical. "Like it was eye-stingingly bad, even outside the hotel."
The Rosemont police and fire departments rushed to the scene around 12:45 AM on December 7, 2014. But it wasn't just local law enforcement that stormed the hotel. There were throngs of reporters with bright cameras, hazardous materials technicians wearing space-like suits, and later, detectives from FBI Chicago's counter-terrorism and weapons of mass destruction unit.
It didn't take authorities long to confirm what many convention attendees had intuitively suspected: The intense fumes they'd smelled were the result of chlorine, the oxidizing chemical commonly used as a cleaning agent in swimming pools. The gas can be toxic when leaked into the atmosphere, causing respiratory problems and irritation of the eyes. Nineteen people were sent to the hospital as a result.
When Lewis appeared briefly in the background of a national television newscast, it triggered panic among her family. More than 600 miles away in Asheville, North Carolina, Lewis's mother was woken from her sleep in a nursing home and informed that her daughter had been involved in a terrorist attack. Lewis, who lives in a suburb near Chicago, assured her mother she was fine. Her cell phone blew up with texts from co-workers who asked if she'd been hurt. Their second question: Are you at a furry convention?
The incident became a national news sensation not only because authorities deemed it a deliberate, criminal act, but also because it occurred during Midwest FurFest, the second-largest furry convention in the country. The annual gathering brings together more than 4,000 people from all over the world, many of whom engage in role playing as anthropomorphic animals, sometimes while dressed in head-to-toe fur suits.
The Rosemont Police Department launched a criminal investigation into the spread of the chlorine gas, enlisting the help of federal investigators. But more than a year later, no charges have been filed and neither agency has made an arrest. Today, the source of the chlorine gas that sickened 19 people and catapulted furries into the media spotlight remains a mystery. Convention attendees still reminisce about standing in the cold together until the wee hours of the morning, and while some laugh it off as an unfortunate one-time prank, many others are still searching for answers.
An incident report filed by the Rosemont Police Department shows the case was logged into the system on December 8, 2014, assigned to a detective on December 29 of that year, and closed on July 29, 2015. But the reports reveal little about what took place after December 2014—let alone seven months later. The last page of the report sent to VICE by the Rosemont Police Department shows that the FBI had emailed the department its set of reports relating to the Midwest FurFest. The FBI did not respond to a request for the documents.
Special Agent Garrett Croon, a media coordinator for the FBI's Chicago Division, however, said that while the Rosemont Police Department may have closed its case, it's not uncommon to reopen an investigation if either department were to get a lead. "It's always ongoing because whether a year from now or three years from now, evidence is developed or tips are called in or somebody comes to the FBI and informs us, 'Hey, I know who the bad guy is,'" he told me over the phone. "Well, if it's not past the statute of limitations, the FBI reserves the right with the US Attorney's Office or the State's Attorney's Office to prosecute the case." He said they still consider it a criminal investigation.
Detectives from the Rosemont Police Department declined to comment directly on the case, but reports they provided to VICE show that in the days following the incident, officers interviewed at least 30 hotel guests, more than 19 hotel employees, and a number of hospital workers, taxi drivers, and staff employed at local pool and hardware supply stores that sell chlorine. While officers investigated the whereabouts of several individuals, it's unclear how many were considered suspects and during what time.
"Who would've done it? Was it a furry from the inside who was looking for attention in this sort of messed up way?" asked Tommy Bruce, a Maryland-based photographer who attended Midwest FurFest in 2014 and has been documenting furry conventions all over the country for the last six years.
Photos Bruce captured the night of the evacuation—all tinted red and blue from the flashing lights of nearby cop cars—depict scenes of chaos, panic, compassion, friendship, and then boredom as crowds waited in the convention center across the street for hours before they could enter the hotel again. In one image, a person dressed as what appears to be a large black and white skunk wraps white fuzzy mittens around a friend's shoulders; the friend cradles his mascot-like lion head under his arms.
In another photo, a shirtless man wearing a bear head and a leather harness strapped around his chest raises a fist to the sky, as if in protest—or joy, or maybe rage. But not every scene was quite as pleasant: One image shows a woman on a gurney being wheeled into the back of an ambulance; another shows a man gasping for breath as he clings to someone in a white fur suit for support.
When first responders arrived at the scene that night, they used a chlorine meter to lead them to the source of the noxious odor. Donning self-contained breathing apparatuses—or large face-covering masks attached to an air tank that's worn like a backpack—the firefighters headed to the ninth floor of the Hyatt Regency, where the meter recorded a gas level of 1.4 parts per million. That's about the rate at which humans will generally start to experience mild irritation from chlorine, and can typically only tolerate it for about an hour or so, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI).
Though Midwest FurFest panels, dances, and exhibits were scheduled in ballrooms and meeting halls on the first three floors of the hotel, attendees booked a majority of the 1,000-plus guest rooms throughout all ten floors, meaning furries were spread throughout the hotel that night.
By the time firefighters reached the stairwell of the west wing, the gas level had soared beyond 60 parts per million—double the rate at which people exposed to it immediately start to feel chest pain and shortness of breath—exceeding the meter's maximum reading. Humans who inhale that level of chlorine in the atmosphere risk contracting toxic pneumonitis or acute pulmonary edema, which can develop into respiratory disease, according to the NCBI.
But hotel guests complaining about having itchy, red eyes and trouble breathing had reported the odor long before emergency responders encountered it, says Lewis, who had been on staff at Midwest FurFest at the time. "But it was at night during the convention, many of them had had a few drinks, so our medical [team] just assumed, 'Oh well, somebody spilled something on the stairs, maybe a maid did it or something,'" she said. "It was only fairly late in the evening that it really became clear, somebody had done something deliberately."
Firefighters spotted the evidence in a stairwell landing between the ninth and tenth floors: a white powdery substance and the broken glass remains of what appeared to have once been a mason jar. The firefighters retreated from the stairwell and requested back-up assistance once they noticed a yellow and green liquid running down the walls. When the hazmat technicians arrived, they swabbed eight samples—both of the wet liquid and the dry powder—from four different stain patterns on the walls and the landing of the stairwell. The samples were then packed in absorbent pads in a steel drum, but the tests later conducted turned up inconclusive due to a faulty instrument, according to the police reports. Investigators had already confirmed the heightened levels of chlorine gas with the chlorine meter. It's unclear whether there were substances other than chlorine present.
"Outside of initial first responders and assisting in the evacuation of our attendees and staff, Midwest FurFest relinquished complete control of the onsite emergency response and the subsequent criminal investigation," the convention wrote in a statement published last November. "The furry community has been exceptionally supportive of our convention in the wake of this criminal act and our resilient staff and remarkably understanding and sympathetic attendees helped us finish the weekend on many positive notes." Matt Berger, the convention's director of programming and marketing, declined to comment further, citing the ongoing investigation.
Midwest FurFest sent out a series of tweets throughout the evacuation to keep attendees informed of the situation—but the tweets provided little clarity, stressing how little organizers knew about the nature of the emergency. In the absence of information, rumors quickly circulated, becoming magnified and multiplied through social media.
"Twitter was just like blown up for the entire night with people at the convention," recalls Bruce, explaining that furries commonly use the social network to follow stories and updates from a convention—especially if they can't attend in person. "It was interesting to be a part of that experience within the furry community where there is this sort of internet megaphone–like system throughout the whole community, throughout the whole [chlorine incident], and there's so much ability to communicate ideas rapidly."
Some of the early speculation included one theory that chlorine had leaked from a hotel swimming pool or a storage area—or that maybe a ceiling pipe or an air conditioner had sprung a leak, spewing nasty chemicals out into the atmosphere. But the Hyatt Regency O'Hare didn't have a swimming pool—and why would chlorine be carried through pipes, anyway? Others posited that maybe things got out of hand during a domestic dispute; or that a kid's science experiment had exploded; or that a hotel guest had decided to clean rubber work equipment with chlorine products.
After all the hotel guests—including those who had nothing to do with Midwest FurFest—got herded into the nearby Donald E. Stephens Convention Center about an hour after the evacuation began, social media served another practical purpose: locating those who had been separated during the evacuation. "[People] were holding their cell phones up in the air in the convention center and taking panoramic pictures and then posting them to Twitter so that you could make sure your friends were OK," remembers Lewis.
But being holed up in the convention center wasn't all doom and gloom. After all, many people had been coming from parties and raves that typically last until all hours of the night on the Saturday of the weekend-long convention. Some were intoxicated or chemically altered; and some were in various states of undress, from fetish wear to pajamas to full-on fur suits.
"One guy seemed to be trying to start a revolution," said Pieter Van Hiel, a Hamilton, Ontario–based science fiction writer known for authoring a series of role-playing games set in 17th-century Japan. "He was standing there and in a very loud dramatic voice he kept starting to deliver an inspiring speech but would get like three or four words in and forget what he was saying and start again and a bunch of people told him to sit down."
Coincidentally, the convention center had been hosting another kind of furry convention earlier that day—only at that one, the animals on display were real. The cages and kennels strewn about suggested that a dog training show had taken place in the massive auditorium, and some of the dogs had been left in crates overnight, their barking and yapping audible, according to Bruce.
A photo he snapped at the scene showed that the Rosemont Police Department had also been a dog-training exhibitor during the convention—little did officers know they'd be returning to the scene again in the middle of the night. "It was sort of like, all the people dressed as animals were walking past all the accoutrements for grooming animals. That was kind of funny," said Hiel.
Amidst the chaos, there were also moments of tenderness: the furries in warm animal suits giving up their winter coats to those who needed them, the man who ran to McDonald's and brought back bags of McMuffin's to distribute, the neighbors who brought carafes of hot cocoa, and the nearby hotels that offered up their rooms so people wouldn't have to sleep on the floor of the convention center. All in all, the evacuation lasted nearly five hours. Firefighters had ventilated the area by opening a rooftop hatch in the stairwell and opening the doors on the first floor. Around 4:20 AM, when the chlorine meter read zero, guests were free to return to their rooms.
The convention ended that Sunday night, and thousands evacuated the building once more—this time to return to reality and bid farewell to their weekend escape. The Midwest FurFest went on again last year without a hitch, but the mystery of the chlorine has not yet evaporated.
Ken Smith, whose fursona—a term widely used to describe a furry's persona—is a leopard-fox hybrid named Malkontent, is still haunted by the gas incident, even though he didn't attend Midwest FurFest in 2014. But the San Francisco–based furry is a regular at half a dozen conventions across the country, including Further Confusion in San Jose, Furlandia in Portland, Biggest Little Fur Con in Reno, and the RainFurrest in Spokane. He often takes gigs working in the so-called headless lounge—the backstage area where people in fur suits can feel comfortable to remove their heads, unzip their suits, and cool down.
Smith worries that violent threats against the furry community may not have been taken seriously in the past because of stigmas that make furries afraid to identify themselves, and fear within the community that authorities will not take them seriously. "That's a big problem with things like this, because furries have been so ridiculed and so misrepresented, a lot of us don't want to speak up about something affecting the furry community," he said. "If we look at the way we're handled [in the media], I think we really do count as being marginalized," he adds.
He points to a 2003 Crime Scene Investigation called "Fur and Loathing," which depicts rampant sexual deviancy and even murder at a furry convention. There was also a 2014 episode of Dr. Phil dubbed "Animal Obsessed" that he says painted furries as low-lives and freaks. (One of the talk show's guests, for example, eats dog food out of a dish and another chooses furry conventions over a college education.) But for many in the community, the biggest blow to their image dates back to 2001, when Vanity Fair ran a cover story set at Midwest FurFest. Many furries took issue with writer George Gurley's depiction of the community as sex-crazed misfits with bizarre fur fetishes.
For example, one attendee Gurley profiled has an entire hotel room filled with stuffed animals; he calls people with an erotic attachment to stuffed children's toys "plushophiles." Another section of the story describes furries as using their own language for mating: Terms like "yiff" means sex, and the word "spooge" denotes semen—one possible outcome of a so-called "fur pile," Gurley explains. "That was the first big exposure people had to furries, and of course they turned it into a bunch of lurid sex references," said Lewis. "I'm not saying there are not adult aspects of our fandom... but that is not even 20 percent of what happens at conventions."
After the Vanity Fair story was published, most furries collectively decided to shun the press, banning reporters from attending conventions. It's the reason most of the people I spoke to for this story were reluctant to grant an interview request, initially referring us to spokespeople or doing extensive background checks to ensure I had no intention of misrepresenting them. And then, of course, there was the sometimes-superficial reception to the otherwise horrifying chlorine incident itself. For example, a segment from the MSNBC news show Morning Joe went viral after anchor Mika Brzezinski erupted in a fit of giggles at the mere mention of furries while attempting to report the story. Some furries call it "fursecution," believing they make easy targets for others to persecute.
While that may be the case, Samuel Conway, a North Carolina–based scientist and researcher who also chairs Pittsburgh's Anthrocon, the world's largest furry convention, brushes off any suggestion that furries should be fearing for their lives. He says all the hype surrounding the chlorine incident at Midwest FurFest was just that: hype. "Was it a nasty event? Yes it was. Did people get injured? Yes they did," said Conway, a former Red Cross volunteer who's trained in emergency management services.
"But the news media kind of painted this picture, like they had the world thinking that there were probably 50 al Qaeda agents descending on the hotel with grenades or something like that," he said, admitting that others in the community have accused him of being too flippant about the incident.
"There's no worldwide anti-furry conspiracy," stresses Conway, better known online and during conventions as the lab-coat clad samurai cockroach Uncle Kage. "The mentality out there that some people have is that if they don't understand something, they immediately want to mock it. OK, if it makes them happy, swell. Whatever—knock yourselves out."
Many people have done just that: In 2007, several protesters picketed outside of Anthrocon, seemingly ironically, holding signs plastered with anti-furry statements like "Yiff in hell furfags.". That's not the only time Anthrocon has been the target of harassment or worse. In 2014, the FBI and Pittsburgh police investigated a string of social media posts that threatened the convention with violence, including the use of bullets and bombs, local news station WXPI reported.
"It turned out that the person who made these threats was, let's just say, in no position to carry them out," Conway said. "He had a nice large uniformed person show up at his door and I don't think he'll do that again." Some speculate that the person responsible for threatening Anthrocon also had something to do with the chlorine gas incident at Midwest FurFest, but authorities have not confirmed that link.
"I really hope that a lead really comes up with what happened in Chicago because it looks like somebody got away with something that was marginally successful, and the next person with a motive can learn how to be more successful. And that worries me," said Smith, who uses a wheelchair and says fire alarms can already be scary enough for people with accessibility issues.
Lewis says the chlorine incident at Midwest FurFest has had a lasting impact in ways that aren't always quantifiable. She says she noticed a higher police presence at the convention this year, for example, and that some people opted not to stay at the Hyatt Regency because they were concerned about the potential for another attack at the convention's main grounds. Lewis also packed a rebreather—a device that recycles oxygen in case it becomes restricted—for her girlfriend, who uses a wheelchair, just in case there was another incident and she couldn't immediately be carried down the stairs.
"I feel that the mood was grimmer this year, I really do," she said. "I think that there was a whole lot of 'us versus them' [mentality], like people were staring really hard at anybody that didn't look like they fit in with us, just to kind of keep an extra eye on it."
One unintended but welcome side effect of the chlorine disaster: It has forced Lewis to become more open about her involvement with furries—opening up a dialogue she says she wouldn't otherwise have initiated with some of her co-workers if her image hadn't been broadcast on television during Midwest FurFest.
"I hadn't brought it up just because you never know who has a weird impression of what a group is," she said, adding that she's an independent contractor, and she didn't want to put her job at risk. "It went way better than I'd been afraid it would. I think ultimately I'm saying that people are generally less of an asshole than you worry they'll be."
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