Wednesday, February 24, 1999

get a crash course
on anthrax

And a warning about
suspicious mailings after
two threats this week

By Rod Ohira


Anthrax is the new buzz word around town, an imprint left by recent terroristic activity that has invaded Hawaii.

"Until Tuesday, I never heard of anthrax," said Opal Oshiro, who works at the city Motor Vehicle & Licensing Division's office at Chinatown Gateway Plaza that was temporarily shut down yesterday by an anthrax threat.

"I thought it was some kind of rapid transit system or something like Amtrak."

Reported anthrax threats Tuesday at the Ala Moana Building and yesterday turned out to be hoaxes, but many more local residents are now aware of the infectious disease that is contracted by inhaling spore-forming bacteria.

"Anthrax does scare me because it's supposed to be a fast killer," said Elsie Sumida, an employee of JN Automotive Group who was at the Motor Vehicle & Licensing office yesterday. "If they can use the nerve gas thing in Japan, anthrax can happen, too."

Like Russian roulette, terrorism can deliver one deadly shot, so hoaxes cannot be taken lightly.

"Civil Defense's letterhead says something like it's not if it happens, but when," FBI supervisory agent John Gillies said. "So we take this very seriously.

"That's why for just one threat, a person could be sentenced from a year to life in prison. We're not trying to scare people but it's there."

Both incidents this week involved anthrax threats that were mailed, but Felice Broglio of the U.S. Postal Service does not believe the general public is being targeted.

"Normally terrorists of this type are targeting someone in particular or an institution," she said.

But people should be careful about accepting suspicious-looking mail, Broglio warned.

Gillies notes that if a package looks suspicious, people should take the proper precaution and not open it.

Dennis Kamimura, the Motor Vehicle & Licensing Division administrator who is also commander of the Hawaii Army National Guard's 29th Infantry Brigade, was convinced that the contents of a suspicious envelope he opened Tuesday was not dangerous but says he should have played it safe.

"That's a mistake I made," Kamimura said of opening the envelope. "I should have placed it in a Ziploc bag and called the Post Office or police. With terrorism, you have to be careful, especially with something strange."

Kamimura notified authorities yesterday at about 11 a.m. after learning about the Ala Moana Building anthrax threat.

The two cases are not related, says Gillies.Federal investigators, police and the Honolulu Fire Department responded and shut down the Motor Vehicle & Licensing offices from about 11:45 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

Tuesday's letter, mailed to internist Elsie Blossom Wang's 14th-floor office but intended for a previous tenant, was postmarked in Kentucky and is similar to at least 14 others sent to abortion clinics across the nation, Gillies said.

Yesterday's was different.

"It's a copycat only in terms of the scare of anthrax (being used)," Gillies said.

The envelope, which fire Capt. Richard Soo said was mailed locally, contained only a small packet, which several witnesses identified as salt.

Kamimura says a mail clerk brought the legal-sized envelope to his office "because anything unusual is not to be opened but brought to me. I make the final determination."

Although its mailing address was used, the envelope was not intended for Motor Vehicle & Licensing, Kamimura said.

"The addressee was a political description," Kamimura added. "That's why it was unusual and the staff brought it to my attention. There was also an ethnic symbol with racial slurs where the return address goes. There was some other stuff written on the reverse side, where anthrax was mentioned."

Only he and his office manager were present when the letter was opened in his office, Kamimura said. Based on his military training, Kamimura was certain the envelope did not contain anthrax.

"When I felt it, I could tell it wasn't a powdery substance and nothing was leaking out," he said. "Then I put the envelope up to the light and recognized the substance."

To verify its contents, officials yesterday sent the packet to the Environmental Preventive Medicine Unit 6 at Pearl Harbor.Gillies says lab tests confirmed the substance in the packet was not anthrax.

Broglio added that the public can report suspicious packages to Postal Inspection Services at 423-3790.

Jaymes Song and Susan Kreifels
contributed to this story

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