As It Happens

Latest Novichok nerve agent victim seemed 'drunk' before being hospitalized

Two more people have been exposed to the same nerve agent as former Russian spy and his daughter, Sergei and Yulia Skripal.

Two people in critical condition in the U.K. after being exposed to same nerve agent as former Russian spy

British police officers guard a cordon outside the Amesbury Baptist Centre church in Amesbury, England, Wednesday, July 4, 2018. (Matt Dunham/Associated Press)

Two more people have been sickened by the nerve agent Novichok, just kilometres away from where a former Russian spy and his daughter were recently poisoned in the U.K. 

The Wiltshire police force declared a "major incident" on Wednesday, after a man and a woman in their 40s were found unconscious at a residential building on Saturday in Amesbury. They remain in hospital in critical condition. 

Police have not released their names, but friends named the couple as Dawn Sturgess, 44, and Charlie Rowley, 45. 

Sergei and Yulia Skripal were poisoned just 13 kilometres away in Salisbury on March 4. After the poisoning, the U.K. traced the nerve agent to a Russian military facility. 

Roy Collins is the church secretary at the Amesbury Baptist Centre, one of the five locations that police have cordoned off for the investigation. Charlie Rowley attended a barbecue by the church on Saturday, shortly before he was hospitalized. 

Collins spoke with As It Happens guest host Robyn Bresnahan about meeting Rowley, and how the community is reacting. Here is part of that conversation. 

Mr. Collins, can you start for us by describing the scene at the Amesbury Baptist Center. What are police doing there?

About five o'clock yesterday morning, our pastor got a phone call from the police to say that the church had been cordoned off which surprised us very much.

We were very confused at the time because ... we weren't given a reason and we didn't understand why our building had been chosen to be cordoned off.

Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, are now living in an undisclosed location after recovering from being poisoned. (Misha Japaridze/AP; Yulia Skripal/Facebook via AP)

And what have you learned since about ... the connection of the Amesbury Baptist Center to this couple who has been poisoned?

So what happened is that on Saturday we conducted our annual hog roast and barbecue and what we have is we take over a sort of play area or a field, as it were, across the road from the church.

About 200 plus people came, amongst them was someone who stood out as being a little bit different.

This gentleman turned out to be Charlie Rowley and that's where we simply met. He stayed for about 20 minutes. He left. And then we heard nothing else until it was revealed yesterday that he was actually the subject of an inquiry to define what had happened to him.

And we now know that when he was at the hog roast with you...he had already come into contact with the nerve agent. So how did he seem to you at the time?

He was dishevelled, he was unkempt in his hair and unshaven and so on and he looked to be unsteady on his feet as he approached us.

He seemed friendly and affable but a bit incoherent and it was difficult to get a conversation going with him. And the most I manage say, "Look have something to eat" because my thought is he's a bit drunk.

The UK's head of counter-terrorism policing Neil Basu, right, and chief medical officer for England Dame Sally Davies speaking at a news conference at New Scotland Yard in London, Wednesday, July 4, 2018. British police say a couple who are critically ill were exposed to Russian nerve agent Novichok. (John Stillwell/Associated Press)

How did you react when you found out later that he was one half of the couple who was poisoned, who's now in critical condition in hospital?

Well I was quite shocked, however I suppose there was an inkling that I didn't know at the time but one of our church members was able to explain to us afterwards.

When he came to us he...ended up in our prayer tent.

Now what we didn't know was that morning his partner or friend Dawn Sturgess had been taken into hospital. And clearly I can't share what he was invited into pray about but one imagines that it was something along those lines.

Are you worried at all that members of your church could also be at risk in any way?

No I'm not. Because we've been through the incident with the Skripals and we realized through that that unless you get into personal close contact or had physical contact with the individuals concerned or with the substance then you weren't at risk.

A worker helps erects metal fencing on the end of Rollestone Street, next to the John Baker House for homeless people at right, in Salisbury, England, Thursday, July 5, 2018. British officials were seeking clues Thursday in the rush to understand how two Britons were exposed to the military-grade nerve agent Novichok. (Matt Dunham/Associated Press)

It's quite extraordinary isn't it? I mean your tiny little pockets of England there, it's being at the center of this story for the past four months since the Skripals, the former Russian spy and his daughter, fell ill and now this case of this same nerve agent poisoning two more people. I mean, how are people how are people talking about this?

Well it's bizarre to me. You know, it's one of the fantastical things that you think might happen in a movie or somewhere but it will never happen to you in a quiet local community.

Written by Sarah Jackson with files from Reuters and The Associated Press. Produced by Ashley Mak.