Skip to comments.Anthrax: Scare shuts down Naples bank, law firm
Posted on 10/10/2001 2:49:37 AM PDT by Dane
Anthrax: Scare shuts down Naples bank, law firm
Test results released Tuesday night revealed the nature of the white powdery substance that created the scare earlier in the day talcum powder.
Wednesday, October 10, 2001
By GINA EDWARDS, email@example.com LIZ FREEMAN, firstname.lastname@example.org and MIREIDY FERNANDEZ, email@example.com
An anthrax scare that shut down a Naples bank and law firm, forcing about 75 employees to go through a decontamination procedure while their two buildings were evacuated, was caused by a substance that turned out to be talcum powder, authorities said Tuesday night.
Test results released Tuesday night by the FBI revealed the nature of the white powdery substance that created the scare earlier in the day, Naples police said.
At least 20 employees at the Fifth Third Bank at 4099 U.S. 41 N. and about 55 employees at the Cummings & Lockwood law firm at 3001 U.S. 41 N. were required to strip down and decontaminate in special biohazard quarters set up on scene Tuesday morning.
The substance, found in bulk mail bins delivered by a courier service, Mail Station Courier, wasn't the deadly anthrax bacterium. Preliminary tests were conducted at the scene and the results confirmed later, the FBI said.
Around Florida, authorities were checking out suspicious substances or packages in Lee, Pasco and Pinellas counties in the wake of the recent discovery of anthrax in Boca Raton.
After employees at Fifth Third Bank discovered the substance around 9:30 a.m., police alerted the law firm because the same courier made a mail drop later Tuesday morning, a spokeswoman from Cummings & Lockwood said.
"It was all over the mail," said Trista Meister, marketing coordinator for Fifth Third.
FBI agents transported the mail from the bank to a lab in Tampa for testing.
"You have to assume it's anthrax or something suspicious but it's probably nothing," Collier County Emergency Management Director Ken Pineau said before the test results came back Tuesday night.
Tom Guthrie, president and owner of Mail Station Courier, said the driver picked up bulk mail at the post office on Goodlette-Frank Road in Naples about 7:30 a.m. to deliver to the businesses. He said his delivery driver didn't notice anything unusual in the bins.
"He didn't notice it at all," Guthrie said.
He said investigators questioned the delivery driver, adding, "We have been open and honestly working with officials here in Naples."
At least 100 people who were evacuated from both buildings mingled in the parking lot outside with thoughts of bioterrorism threats since the Sept. 11 attack on America and the death of a Boca Raton man last week from anthrax inhalation. Authorities had no estimate on how many people were evacuated.
"It's kind of crazy," said Sarah Boeve, 21, an accounting assistant with Naples Realty Services on the second floor of the bank building, as she waited outside.
"Everybody's in pretty good spirits in there but people are concerned," North Naples Fire Chief James Tobin said. "Whether it's a prank or whatever it is, it's disappointing."
A two-member hazardous materials team entered the bank in full blue protection suits to collect the mail with the substance and talk to the employees about the decontamination procedure they would undergo.
The employees were given a preliminary washdown inside the bank on the ground floor and were given a second hosedown outside by the hazardous materials team. Water will remove hazardous material, like anthrax, authorities said. The water used to decontaminate the people was then put into Waste Management trucks and removed from the sites.
One Fifth Third employee bowed as he came out of the bank building wearing a light blue hospital-like gown and darker blue wrap towel around his waist.
"So obviously they are in good spirits," Meister, the bank marketing coordinator, said of the employees who had to be decontaminated.
Hazardous material crews also set up a tent near Collier Place II, which houses Cummings & Lockwood, Ciccarelli Advisory Services, Cox & Nici attorneys, and Vanasse & Daylor, LLP, at 3001 U.S. 41 S.
Haz-mat workers carried in bottles of Clorox bleach just before noon and geared up in white suits and green-and-yellow rubber boots before they entered the third and fourth floors of the building to hose workers down.
Workers from the first and second floors of the building had been evacuated earlier without going through the washdown process, because no one there received packages or mail that appeared suspicious, officials said.
Employees of First National Bank of Naples, a building near the law firm's, were also evacuated as a precaution, Tobin said.
Bank patrons who arrived at First National to do business were greeted with lines of yellow crime scene tape and a host of police and firefighters among fire trucks and ambulances with their lights flashing.
"It's terrifying," said Carolyn Barnes, who had stopped by the bank to make a deposit. "If a month ago someone had told us we'd be living like this, we would have told them they were crazy."
Meanwhile, about 12:30 p.m., a haz-mat team entered the law firm building and escorted workers out into a nearby tent. Law firm employees were asked to remove their clothes and were scrubbed down with bleach and given hospital gowns. Their clothes and shoes were stored into red plastic bags to undergo decontamination and would be returned to them at a later time, police said.
The local office of the FBI is located in the same building complex as Cummings & Lockwood, but officials at the scene said they have no reason to suspect that the FBI office was a target.
Dr. Robert Tober, chairman of emergency and ambulatory services for NCH, was on site at Cummings & Lockwood and said employees weren't being taken to hospitals but were told to watch out for possible symptoms associated with anthrax.
"If they get upper respiratory discomfort or flu-like symptoms, they should go to the emergency room," Tober said. "The symptoms don't come right away it can take awhile."
Tober said individuals who contract anthrax get sick, then get better and then get sick again.
"You tend to feel better for one or two days and then you come up with much more serious respiratory problems and can go into severe respiratory distress," Tober said. "It's treatable with antibiotics, although it's susceptible to penicillin."
Naples Police Sgt. Phil Valdario cautioned that Tuesday's incident shouldn't spark a general fear among the public and said people should use common sense when they report suspicious things.
"What we don't want is a general panic among people," Valdario said. "Don't jump the gun because you see a white, powdery substance and think it's anthrax. Give us a call and we'll gladly check things out if something is suspicious.
Paramedics were prepared to transport bank employees to the three hospitals in Collier for medical evaluation, but all declined, Naples Fire Cmdr. Sheldon Reed said.
Mark Neumann, director of infectious disease control for the NCH Healthcare System, said two who had been decontaminated at the law firm building came to the emergency room at Naples Community Hospital about 3 p.m. on their own for further evaluation.
"We don't know what the substance is but everybody took appropriate action," Judy Nuland, disaster coordinator for the health department, said before the test results came back Tuesday night.
Health department officials fed their information to the state, which will in turn give the information to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
Diane Longstreet, spokeswoman for the health department, said health officials would notify by phone those affected by the scare as soon as authorities learned what the white powder was.
"What we saw was a tremendous amount of teamwork," she said of the response. "We saw two teams working at the same time, handling people with a great deal of professionalism. ... If this turned out to be a hoax, it was a great drill. Today we learned that, yes, we know what we're doing. That was the positive side to this."
Linda Walker, a postal official based in Tampa, said a local inspector in Fort Myers would investigate the Naples incident.
"At this point, the inspector will contact the Federal Bureau of Investigation and he will be coordinating with them," Walker said. "We handle approximately 208 billion pieces of mail a year throughout the United States and we have not identified weapons of mass destruction, such as anthrax, and we have no confirmed cases. All cases we've heard about have been threats and hoaxes."
The Naples incident occurred the day after Monday's scare at an Arby's south of Fort Myers. That case was cleared Tuesday by the Lee County Health Department and the restaurant was allowed to reopen for business.
Robert South, epidemiologist for the Lee County Health Department, said when there is no substance found, such as a powder, the health threat can be cleared quickly if not immediately.
Pineau, with Collier emergency management, said nerves are frayed in the wake of the anthrax death in Boca Raton. Authorities must take precautions for each incident.
"I could drop a container of Sweet & Low and the whole building would be evacuated," Pineau said.
Even so, considering the region's wealth, the area isn't immune from attack, some officials said.
"Naples is a very big (target) because you have a convergence of millionaires and some high-powered executives of major corporations," said Marty Shapiro, a member of the North Naples Fire District's Community Emergency Response Team.
Staff Writers Cathy Zollo, Sean Ernst, Ray Parker and Paul Herrera contributed to this report
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