False gas rumors send prices, tempers into overdrive

Tales of imminent station shutdowns cause panic

Katrina's Wake

September 03, 2005|By William Wan | William Wan,SUN STAFF

The panic, traffic jams, depleted gas stations and angry crowds - it all began yesterday, as these things often do, with a whopper of a tall tale.

The rumor was this: Because of shortages, all Maryland gas stations would be shut down at 4 p.m. yesterday afternoon until after the Labor Day weekend.

But as word spread, what began as a rumor transformed reality. Panicked drivers rushed to the pump in droves, exhausting supplies, closing some stations and sending prices soaring at many of those remaining open.

The heat, fumes and frustration churned into a volatile mixture as gas lines jammed intersections and drivers argued, cursed and inched their way to the pumps.

The Baltimore mayor's office fielded calls all day from worried residents. City police posted officers at stations with the longest lines. The governor held a news conference to urge calm among consumers.

Authorities say they don't know how the rumor started. But drivers in gas lines attributed its rapid spread to radio stations. Many stations did not return phone calls seeking comment.

One disc jockey, Marcellus Shepard on WEAA 88.9, said he told listeners about the possible shutdown after dozens of people called in about it.

"I simply said there's a nasty rumor going around. I'm checking on it," said Shepard, who is known as "The Bassman" on his jazz program, "In the Groove."

But radio alone was not responsible for the how fast and far the rumor traveled yesterday, according to drivers stewing in gas lines.

They heard it, they said, from a sister, a brother-in-law's baby sitter, from their minister.

In Pasadena, Louie Appel, manager of the Audio Connection store, said he heard it from his cousin - a driver for Giant grocery stores. And once Appel heard, he wasted no time getting on the horn to call his friends, his family and everyone else he thought needed to know.

Told yesterday afternoon that it wasn't true, Appel looked skeptical that something so urgent could suddenly turn out to be so false.

"I turned on the TV. I saw people talking about it," he said.

Rumor at school

Waiting at an Exxon station at Eutaw and Mulberry streets in downtown Baltimore, Gail Kromah, a city schoolteacher, said she heard about the supposed shutdown when the principal announced it over the intercom.

"The owner needs to get out here on a bullhorn and tell people this isn't true before someone gets hurt," Kromah said.

"But I guess they're too busy with the, you know, ka-ching," she added, pointing toward the cashier booth.

But gas station owners said the day was disastrous for them as well.

"Sure, we do good for a short period of time - and then we sit here, out of supply, with our employees staring out the window," said Richard Hankins, owner of a Mobil station in Odenton. "Whoever started the rumor should be shot."

Sue Magoon, the proprietor of Sonu's Shell on North Point Boulevard, said she received a telephone call about 3 p.m. yesterday from someone claiming to be a government official. The person told her the governor supposedly ordered a shutdown by 4 p.m.

Before long, she found cars queuing up, her fuel supply running low and patrons getting increasingly agitated.

A call to her distributor brought bad more news - her station probably wouldn't be getting any more gas for a few days. Magoon said she feared what might happen if the station she'd run for six years ran out of gas with so many still in line.

So, she said, she raised prices drastically in the hope of chasing off the line of customers - regular gas from $3.49 a gallon to $4.97 and the super grade all the way to $7.03, she said.

`I panicked'

"I panicked," she said in a telephone interview last evening. "I didn't know what else to do."

Although some customers immediately complained of price-gouging, she insisted she was just trying to dissipate the crowd. After she heard Ehrlich deny the rumors, Magoon dropped her prices back down, but said she still ended the day with only about 2,000 gallons each of mid-grade and super, and virtually no regular.

Majid Hussain, who owns three city gas stations, spent most of yesterday trying in vain to persuade agitated customers that he would not be shutting the pumps at 4 p.m. and would not run out of gas.

As tempers flared, Hussain said he called police twice hoping they would calm consumers.

"This is a very bad situation right now," Hussain said at his Shell station in Edmondson Village. "The situation is not the price. ... People are arguing with each other. People are getting mad and upset."

Rumors that prompt fears are common in times of national catastrophe, said Lars Perner, a marketing professor at San Diego State University.

"Such rumors are suprisingly difficult to backtrack, but they often are born in times of war, of insecurity and stress, when people don't know quite what to expect," said Perner, who has researched rumors and their affect on consumer behavior.

The fast-paced news cycle of modern news media has also changed how such hoaxes spread.

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