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Anthrax reports put area on edge

| Saturday, Oct. 13, 2001

A day after President Bush urged Americans to be alert for possible new acts of terrorism, local emergency officials were investigating calls of suspicious packages and trying to pass along information to people fearful of anthrax.

Those same fears and suspicions led officials in Franklin Regional School District to evacuate an elementary school Friday after finding empty prescription bottles in a lavatory.

'We summoned the police and secured the evacuation of the building only as a precaution. It was done because of the extreme time we live in,' Franklin Regional Superintendent Dr. Roseann Nyiri said.

Yesterday, about 340 students from Newlonsburg Elementary School in Murrysville were evacuated for 2 1/2 hours as police, firefighters and the Westmoreland County hazardous materials team examined the pill bottles.

The two empty bottles were found in a lavatory at 10:35 a.m. by district employees. It was later learned the bottles were empty but had contained an antibiotic.

The pills were administered to a student Thursday by a parent, and the bottles were discarded later in the boys' restroom, she said. They ended up on the floor behind the trash container apparently when the student missed when trying to toss them into the trash can.

By 1 p.m., students returned to class, according to Nyiri.

Along with Murrysville police, volunteer firefighters from Murrysville and White Valley, and the county's hazmat team responded.

Meanwhile, in Allegheny County, emergency management officials as well as locally based federal officials handled more than 100 calls yesterday either about suspicious items or from people looking for information on anthrax. In 'less than three' cases, suspicious letters were turned over to the FBI, officials said.

More information can be found on these Web sites:
CDC: Anthrax
FDA: Anthrax vaccine
'We asked people to be aware, and now they are aware with a passion bordering on ridiculousness,' said Raymond Demichiei, operations supervisor for Pittsburgh's Emergency Operations Center. 'Most of these calls, you can't ignore them, you have to check them out.'

U.S. Postal inspectors in Pittsburgh have taken at least 60 calls a day about suspicious envelopes and packages since a Florida man died Oct. 5 after inhaling anthrax, said Jim Birch, postal inspector in charge of the Western Allegheny Division.

Before the Florida case, he said, they took 60 calls in the previous six months.

Birch asked people to 'take a few seconds' to look over mail before opening it. Particular signs to watch for are: no return address, or one that cannot be verified; an unusual weight, lopsided or oddly shaped package; restrictive endorsements, such as 'personal' or 'confidential'; and having protruding wires, strange odors or stains.

'You know what is normal for your house or office,' he said. 'If you do open it by mistake and do see an unknown substance, isolate it and dial 911,' he said

Mary Beth Buchanan, the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, said anyone making a threat or hoax by mail faces up to five years in prison. Someone convicted of sending threatening mail could be sentenced to life in prison or to death if any victim dies.

'We will prosecute these offenses to the full extent of the law,' she said.

A suspicious package received Thursday at a private residence in North Versailles, with the return address of American Media Corp., the same company whose offices were the site of the Florida anthrax cases, also appears to be a hoax, said Bob Full, Allegheny County's emergency services director. That letter is being held by the county police as evidence, he said.

The Allegheny County 911 center had received about four calls for 'suspicious packages,' all of which turned out to be unfounded, county 911 Communications Manager Bob Harvey said. The city investigated about 20 calls, said Demichiei.

In some of the incidents reported yesterday:

  • WRRK radio staff called 911 about 1 p.m. after disc jockey Jim Quinn received a letter at the station's Smithfield Street office and began to feel ill hours later. The letter had some sort of writing and smelled 'like strong cheap perfume,' said city police Cmdr. Rashall Brackney-Griffin, who oversees the SWAT unit and bomb squad. It has been turned over to the FBI for analysis, she said, but it does not appear to be dangerous.

  • Police in Kittanning, Armstrong County, picked up two letters yesterday from recipients who thought they looked 'suspicious,' said Randy Brozenick, the county's Emergency Management Agency director. Both letters were being sent to the U.S. Postal Service Pittsburgh headquarters office for further inspection, Brozenick said.

  • The Allegheny County bomb squad was called to Chippewa Township in Beaver County to retrieve a suspicious-looking device on one of their back roads, said Kevin Joy, deputy director for the county's Emergency Services Center. It turned out to be nonexplosive.

  • Hazmat crews rushed to close off Fifth Avenue near the county courthouse in downtown Pittsburgh about 1 p.m. A device later determined to be equipment used to fill cracks in sidewalks had fallen off a passing truck, said Brackney-Griffin.

    Pittsburgh's FBI office has followed up on 2,500 leads since the Sept. 11 terrorist incidents, said Jack Shea, special agent in charge. At this point, agents have not identified any credible threat against any target in western Pennsylvania, he said.

    Pittsburgh public safety officials plan to meet next week with the operators of Downtown buildings to discuss concerns over chemical and biological attacks. Evacuation plans and how to recognize a truly suspicious package would be discussed.

    'It's going to be a very time-consuming process to meet with everyone but I think it will save us time and energy in the long run,' said Brackney-Griffin.

    Along with reporting suspicious packages, officials said people want to know more about anthrax.

    Local and federal authorities rushed to calm fears yesterday, especially about anthrax, which has killed one man in Florida, infected two others there and was detected yesterday in NBC News offices in New York City.

    Demichiei said the number of calls coming into the city jumped yesterday after word spread about the New York City case.

    Pittsburgh-area doctors and hospitals have been asked to pay special attention to sudden respiratory illnesses, said Allegheny County Health Director Bruce Dixon. Anthrax is fatal 90 percent of the time without treatment and initially appears with symptoms similar to a cold or flu. Anthrax treatment must be started quickly to be effective.

    'We have the hospitals looking for things that they normally wouldn't be,' Full said. 'We are at the highest level of alert and communication.'

    Allegheny County's rumor control hot line had 50 calls by mid-yesterday from people asking how to spot anthrax. The county also has established a separate hot line for children.

    The illness cannot be spread through person-to-person contact.

    'We're telling people that they won't get it from someone breathing on them,' said Elizabeth Johnson, acting executive director of Contact Pittsburgh, the volunteer counseling group that runs the hot line.

    'We're telling people that if you have a problem and don't start feeling better soon, go back to your doctor,' Dixon said. Common antibiotics, such as ciprofloxacin and penicillin, are used for four weeks to treat the illness.

    An anthrax vaccine is held only by the military for its use, Full said. Massive inoculations at this point are not seen as practical, because the serum requires up to 18 months for full protection, Dixon said.

    A federal Public Health Service lab in Maryland found that a 'powdery substance' found spread deliberately outside a ventilation system at Franklin Park Elementary School was 'most likely something you would find in a kitchen, like talcum powder, or sugar,' Full said.

    Staff writers Paul Peirce, Dave Conti, Brian Nearing and Andrew Conte contributed to this story.

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