Two plastic "bottle bombs" of acid mixed with metals exploded early Sunday in a crowded Northern Virginia theater complex, making sounds loud enough that patrons thought they were gunshots.
No one was hurt, but the sounds led many people to flee the theater and then led to the complete evacuation of about 2,000 people in the theater and a nearby food court.
The two devices exploded shortly after midnight near the entrance of two theaters inside the AMC Theater at Tysons Corner Center in McLean, Virginia. Fire officials believe they were plastic bottles filled with acid and metals, which react with each other and explode.
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They may have been mixed on-site, said Deputy Chief Mike Reilly of the Fairfax County fire marshal's office.
"There's a very large sound when that occurs, almost sounds like a gunshot," Reilly said. "So it's easily understandable why, when that device went off, people thought that it was gunfire."
The first calls to police said there was an active shooter at the theater. But emergency squads, including an active shooter team, quickly discovered the devices. They called in a hazardous materials team to check the area and look for any other devices.
The detonations did not cause any injury or damage, though the bottle bombs are capable of spraying acid as far as 30 feet, Reilly said.
"Very fortunately no one was injured," Reilly said. "No one was exposed to the chemical that we are aware of and no one was injured in the evacuation process."
The scene inside was chaotic, Reilly said. One patron captured it on cell phone video.
Fairfax police are asking the public for their help in finding the people who placed the bottle bombs. Anyone with information is asked to call Fairfax County Crime Solvers by phone at 1-866-411-TIPS or by text to 274637.
"We believe this is a very, very serious crime that involves several felonies and maybe even an act of terrorism, based on what their intent is," Reilly said. "While people may think this is a prank or a hoax, we are not taking it that way."
On July 20, 2012, 12 people were killed and 70 people were injured in a movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado during a screening of the movie "The Dark Knight Rises."
In January, a 71-year-old man fatally shot a 43-year-old in a Tampa movie theater after a dispute over texting in the theater.