Tuesday, October 16, 2001

Remember 9-11-01

Anthrax calls
flood isles

Officials plead for calm after
nervous residents place pressure
on police and fire investigators

Neighbor isle teams busy too
If you find a suspicious package

By Nelson Daranciang

A box of Tupperware. A mass mailing of religious literature in brown paper bags. Radiator re-sealant on the floor of a garage. Baking powder spilled near a trash chute. Fire retardant powder used to line the inside of airline cargo containers.

All of these items are essentially harmless, but all prompted calls to police over the past week from residents who believed them to be suspicious packages or substances.

"The situation is getting out of hand, and we need to apply some common sense," said Bruce Anderson, state health director.

Among the items, the Tupperware was being mailed back to the company by the addressee, who had not ordered it. It twice was called in as a suspicious white box by an anonymous person. The bags of religious literature forced the closing of the Kailua Post Office yesterday morning until a Honolulu Fire Department Hazardous Materials unit determined that the packages contained actual mail.

Police played out the same scenario on Saturday at a home on Metcalf Street. And hundreds of identical packages already had passed through the U.S. Postal Service Main Station at Honolulu Airport.

"It's gotten ridiculous," said Felice Broglio, Postal Service spokeswoman. "People need to think about why they might be a target. Nobody's out to get people in Hawaii."

The Postal Service has a Hazardous Materials unit on each island and procedures for examining suspicious items. They include X-rays, trained dogs and the ability to obtain warrants to open suspect parcels.

In recent days there has been an unusually high number of suspicious-parcel reports.

HFD HazMat crews responded to 14 calls yesterday regarding unknown substances, seven of which came after 4 p.m. HFD spokesman Capt. Richard Soo said, "It appears a lot of people are calling us after getting home from work and opening their mail." Before yesterday's surge, Soo said that from Sept. 11 to Oct. 11, there were 17 HazMat calls for unknown substances.

State health officials, Honolulu police and HFD HazMat units responded to at least 25 such reports over the weekend. None of them tested positive for any hazardous agents.

The reports and panic are understandable following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the more recent anthrax infections on the mainland, including one that turned out fatal, said a Honolulu psychologist.

"Everyone is very fearful because they know that threats are real since Sept. 11," said Brian Combs, chief psychologist at Queen's Medical Center. "It's almost hard to tell people they're overreacting,"

What is missing, he said, are better guidelines to let people know when to call 911.

Anderson said people are overreacting when they report as suspicious unsolicited letters from companies that had sent them previous mail or substances they see in and around their home and workplace.

Meanwhile, the pace of possible anthrax reports continued. At one point last night, all HPD Criminal Investigation detectives were investigating suspicious packages.

"Our emergency response staff, laboratory staff, are now overwhelmed with reports of possible anthrax findings, which is putting a lot of stress on our system and personnel," Anderson said.

Honolulu police are the first to respond to these reports. They call the Honolulu Fire Department if they are unable to determine the substance. HFD sends its HazMat units to test for known biological and chemical agents with assistance from Health Department officials.

The state laboratory can test on unknown substances. For confirmation it relies on the Navy laboratory at Pearl Harbor.

The state is unable to do the quick test to verify the presence of anthrax bacteria. Anderson said the state lab has the equipment, and its staff has been training to do the test. It just needs the re-agents that can verify the presence of the bacteria from the Centers for Disease Control.

With the FBI saying there are no specific threats of terrorism in Hawaii, the state Health Department warned the public against stockpiling gas masks and antibiotics in anticipation of a possible terrorist or chemical attack.

An adequate supply of antibiotics is available if necessary, Anderson said, adding that stockpiling could deplete existing supplies for sick patients who need the drugs now. Improper use is harmful to pregnant women, children and people with drug allergies.

Neighbor isle HazMat
teams kept busy

Star-Bulletin staff

Hazardous materials teams on the neighbor islands scrambled yesterday to keep up with a deluge of calls reporting "white powder" or "suspicious mail."

By late yesterday afternoon, Maui County fire and police units responded to six calls, Kauai County to six and Hawaii County to two. Results of tests on most of the materials were not immediately available. The few that were conducted showed the substances were harmless.

Maui Assistant Fire Chief Alan Cordeiro said material collected at all of the incidents is being treated as criminal evidence in case it is used in future prosecutions.

On Kauai, which has only one fire department hazardous-materials truck and 10 police officers on patrol duty for each shift, officials were still working at all six call sites late yesterday. The largest was the primary mail-sorting facility for the island, adjacent to Lihue Airport. It has been closed until test results on the white powder are received.

One of the complaints involved material found on a stairway at the Holiday Inn Sunspree Resort. The area was cordoned off but the hotel remained open.

Authorities on the Big Island responded to a scare yesterday regarding a white powder at the Waimea post office, only to learn about six hours later that the powder had been discovered Saturday and was already determined to be fire extinguisher material.

A similar incident at the Kulaimano community center north of Hilo went much faster yesterday. Fire officials arrived on the scene, saw that the powder there was also from a fire extinguisher, and closed the case, police said.

Recommendations on handling
biological threats

The state Department of Health has issued the following recommendations when it comes to handling potential biological threats and anthrax. Upon receiving an envelope or package that is suspected to contain a biological threat, health officials suggest the following:

1. Do not panic.

2. Try to contact the person who sent the package.

3. Do not shake or empty contents.

4. If an envelope with powder spills out onto the surface, do not try to clean up the powder. Cover the spilled contents immediately using whatever is close by.

5. If a plastic or other airtight container is available, place the envelope or package inside.

6. Leave the room, and close the door or section off the area to prevent others from entering.

7. Wash hands with soap and water to prevent anthrax from infecting face. Shower with soap and water as soon as possible. Do not use bleach or other disinfectants on your skin.

8. Report the incident to police and local branch of the FBI.

9. Make a list of all the people who were in the room or area when the suspicious package was recognized, and give this list to police and/or federal investigators.

HazMat teams:
What they do

Star-Bulletin staff

The Honolulu Fire Department's Hazardous Materials emergency response team, or HazMat, provides protection for the public and other emergency workers who may come in contact with hazardous materials. There are 30 HazMat-trained operators who cover three shifts daily.

Fire officials say the priorities of HazMat workers are to identify the point of origin of hazardous substances, then stop their spread.

HazMat crews also have the capability of decontaminating people who may have come into contact with a hazardous substance as well as containing the substance itself.

Capt. Richard Soo said while HazMat crews have been recently responding mostly to calls of suspicious packages or determining "unknown substances," other calls prior to the anthrax scare included chemical spills, detection of chemical odors, and backup during police raids on suspected crystal methamphetamine labs.

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