ROWLEY — Stores in the Market Basket plaza were evacuated around 3 p.m. Thursday and eight people taken to area hospitals after a refrigerant leak in a supermarket freezer brought on breathing problems for several people, according to local and state fire officials.

Rowley and Newbury firefighters responded to a report of a possible "mass casualty" incident at Market Basket on Route 1, also known as the Newburyport Turnpike. Rowley Fire Chief James Broderick said every store in the complex was evacuated after several people said they had difficulty breathing. Eight people were eventually taken by ambulances to Anna Jaques Hospital in Newburyport and Beverly Hospital as a precaution. 

A hazardous materials team from the state Department of Fire Services investigated and had determined by around 5 p.m. that refrigerant leaking from a freezer in Market Basket had prompted coughing and breathing problems for some people in the store, forcing the evacuation, according to Jennifer Mieth, public information officer for the DFS.

Ashley Rossiter of Ipswich said she was cashing out when she began coughing around 3 p.m. Fifteen seconds later, others began coughing "and the manager said 'everyone out,'" Rossiter said outside the supermarket.  

As EMTs from across the region examined dozens of people who complained of feeling sick, police blocked off both entrances to the Market Basket plaza. Close to 100 other people watched from a grassy area at the far end of the parking lot.  

Rossiter said when she left the store she was given a bottle of liquid to rinse out her eyes and throat. 

"I was right there, whatever it was," Rossiter added.

Once all people who needed treatment were driven away from the parking lot, the state hazmat team entered the supermarket to determine what brought on the breathing problems. 

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