Anthrax scares spread across Madison, country

· Oct 14, 2001 Tweet

Four separate anthrax scares occupied Madison emergency crews Friday, and the nation watched in horror over the weekend as more and more people tested positive for the fatal bacterium.

No one was diagnosed with anthrax in Madison, but the fear sparked by recent scares and warnings across America was enough to set authorities in motion.

“This afternoon we once again invoked the emergency procedures that city and county officials have in place and brought the law enforcement, public health and elected officials to review the incident,” Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk said. “We want to ask our citizens to stay calm and be cautious as these incidents unfold.”

At 12:33 p.m. Friday the Madison Police Department received a call about a suspicious green powder found in an envelope opened by an employee in the mailroom of American Family Insurance, 302 North Walbridge Ave.

“They dropped the envelope, then they called police and fire right away,” said Bernadette Galvez, public information officer for the MPD. “The Hazmat team came out and the FBI also came out because of it being a suspicious substance.”

While police and fire officials were on the scene at American Family Insurance, another scare was reported at the GEF-1, State Office Building, two blocks from the Capitol on East Washington Ave. There, two employees found a gray powder at the bottom of a mailing tube.

Anthrax scares were also reported at the Department of Military Affairs, which houses the Wisconsin National Guard, and at Certco, a grocery distribution company in Fitchburg.

All of the scares prompted Dane County to enact its Emergency Contingency Plan.

Over 800 workers were evacuated from the American Family Insurance building. Two people with direct exposure to the powder were transported to University Hospital, while the 22 people near the package when it was opened stayed on the scene until the substance was declared harmless.

Despite the scare, those detained remained calm until the results of the test were delivered from the state lab of hygiene.

“They [were] in good spirits,” said Judy Lowell, spokesperson for American Family. “They were frightened, but everyone is fine.”

Matt Banbury, a custodian at American Family, was one of those exposed to the powder. Banbury said he entered the mailroom after the envelope was opened.

“We knew that something was up but we didn’t know for sure,” Banbury said. “I went down to the recycling container in the room, I saw the security guard cleaning up the mess [and] I quickly got out of there. The next thing I knew, they told us to evacuate the building.”

The powder sample was analyzed at the state lab of hygiene while the 22 workers were decontaminated.

The workers waited on a bus headed for University Hospital pending the results. Within a couple hours the results came back negative for anthrax.

“They have run the sample twice and came up with nothing out of the ordinary,” Asst. Fire Chief Carl Saxe said. “They are finding very minimal product, so at this point they can only speculate on what it was.”

After the results were released, all those detained at American Family were sent home.

At the GEF-1 building the two workers with direct exposure to the powder were detained in a bathroom. Twelve others were detained in a conference room while the Hazardous Incident Team, fully clad in protective gear, obtained the powder and sent it to the state lab. After testing results for anthrax showed up negative, these employees were released as well.

At Certco, an employee reported gray powder fell onto her hands after opening a roll of quarters. However, tests for anthrax were negative.

Finally, workers at the Department of Military Affairs found a suspicious package and handed it over to U.S. postal inspectors. No one came into contact with any powdery substance in this case.

Officials said the four separate incidences were merely precautionary. Capitol Police had specifically asked workers in buildings surrounding the Capitol to be on guard for suspicious packages.

City, county react

Falk and Madison Mayor Sue Bauman called an emergency press conference shortly after the final scare scene had wrapped up. Both leaders asked the public to be “calm” but “cautious,” and said the city and county are more than prepared to handle a bio-terrorism attack should one occur.

“The primary issue right now is for people to remain calm, and when they see something suspicious to report it to the authorities and not try to take care of things themselves,” Bauman said.

Madison Fire Chief Debra Amesqua said the fire department is well prepared to handle bio-terrorism should a serious case occur in the city.

“We have a step-by-step procedure that we followed,” Amesqua said. “We believe we were able to handle the situations effectively today. The community can feel very confident.”

Madison residents were not alone Friday.

Reports trickled in almost continually throughout the day of anthrax scares in Washington, D.C., New York, Colorado and Nevada. An assistant for NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw tested positive for anthrax after handling a letter containing a “powdery substance,” and the third floor of the New York Times office was evacuated when a reporter opened an envelope with the same type of powdery substance. Twelve people at Michigan State University in Lansing were also sent to the hospital after receiving a similar letter.

Over the weekend more reports trickled in, bringing the total of anthrax victims at American Media Inc. in Florida to eight and the total people infected in the NBC case to four. Health officials are also waiting for the results of many more cases across the country.

U.S. officials spent most of the weekend dealing with the situation. Members of the House of Representatives met behind closed doors to discuss bio-terrorism.

President Bush said the anthrax reports were causing “concern for our nation, but I want everybody in the country to know we are responding rapidly.”

A work of terror?

Vice President Dick Cheney said while there is no known connection between the anthrax scares and the terrorist attacks, the federal government, including the FBI, are taking it into consideration.
“I think the only responsible thing for us to do is proceed on the basis that it could be linked,” Cheney said on PBS’s “NewsHour” Friday.
Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said terrorist links are possible, but warned Americans not to jump to conclusions.
“You’ve got to suspect that it’s possible,” Thompson said Sunday. “It certainly is an act of terrorism to send anthrax through the mail.”
Thompson said it is too soon to point fingers, but said it is very likely the anthrax mailings are not the work of the bin Laden’s al Qaeda network, who are responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks.
“It could be a domestic source,” Thompson said. “It could be somebody holding a grudge. It could be ? a copycat kind of situation.”
Some new sources have speculated Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein may be behind the attacks, but the FBI has reported no suspects.
Thompson said the U.S. is prepared for a bio-terrorism attack, with enough antibiotics to treat 2 million people for anthrax for 60 days. Thompson will soon ask the White House and Congress for $1 billion more to counter bio-terrorism threats.

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This article was published Oct 14, 2001 at 12:00 am and last updated Oct 14, 2001 at 12:00 am

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