It wasn't coal in a stocking but an apparent propane leak that spoiled the usually lucrative day after Christmas at this rural region's biggest retail store.
Heather Phillips, the hazardous materials coordinator for Warren County, said Monday that some roof-top heating tanks, recently converted from natural gas to propane, probably leaked into the Kmart store's heating ducts Sunday. Fourteen employees and customers were treated at Warren Memorial Hospital and released.
Local investigators were inconspicuous Monday as they continued their probe into the incident, which had created at least as much hubbub as a post-Christmas scramble for bargains.
"I thought somebody put a bomb in the Kmart," said Anna Kauffman, who tried going to the store on Sunday for help with an uncooperative DVD player she received for Christmas. She was met instead by a fleet of fire trucks and ambulances that responded after a cashier reported feeling ill.
By the time the first ambulance arrived, store manager Richard W. Fox said, two other employees were complaining of nausea and headaches. The 14 who eventually were taken to Warren Memorial Hospital in Front Royal were treated and released by late Sunday, a hospital spokeswoman said.
Phillips said a chemical is added to heating propane to induce mild illness as an early warning of a leak.
In the end, however, the only serious injury was to the take at the register for Kmart and the neighboring businesses in the Royal Plaza shopping center. Fox played down the significance of the loss, although he said Dec. 26 usually generates three or four times the normal traffic of 400 daily customers.
"Well, you've always got to put safety first," Fox said of the decision by fire officials to evacuate the shopping plaza shortly after 1 p.m. Sunday.
Warren County Sheriff Lynn C. Armentrout said the Kmart -- with 79,000 square feet of retail space -- is the biggest game in town for shopping in Warren County, with a population of about 30,000, at the head of the Shenandoah National Forest, 80 miles west of Washington.
"Well, you saw my wife there today, right?" Armentrout joked.
The scare -- which lasted until 7 p.m. Sunday, when fire crews cleared the scene -- had some unintended but welcome benefits.
"I got to stay home and recuperate [from Christmas] a little bit. I was glad to have the day off," said Gina Frederick, a single mother whose 5 p.m. Sunday shift at Kmart was canceled. She said she got a little extra sleep and then played with her 2-year-old daughter and the new Winnie-the-Pooh doll she had found under the tree.