May 2, 2011

Powder threat sends 29 to hospitals

Published May 2, 2011
By Ted Schnell • BocaJump
Nearly 30 people were sent to three area hospitals on Monday afternoon after someone in the Second Appellate District Courthouse in downtown Elgin opened an envelope containing a threatening message and a suspicious white powder, Elgin authorities said.

The incident sparked a massive deployment by Elgin police and firefighters that eventually called in 15 to 20 fire department crews from as far away as Roselle as the incident was escalated to a box alarm, Elgin Fire Chief John Fahy said.

He added that the 28 people who were in the courthouse when the letter was opened were run through a decontamination process and sent to area hospitals as a precaution.

The FBI and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security have taken over the investigation of the incident, Fahy said about 5 p.m.
Elgin’s hazardous materials team ruled out anthrax, ricin and botulism, according to Elgin police spokeswoman Susan Olafson. Anthrax and botulism are naturally occurring biological agents; ricin is a toxic agent derived from the castor bean.

Fahy said the hazardous materials crew used a device capable of distinguishing from among 80,000 various substances to test the material for the most likely types of threatening agents. Even thought the device ruled out some, the tests were inconclusive in determine exactly what the substance is.

The FBI, Olafson said, requires 72 hours to identify the substance, and as a precautionary measure will close the courthouse for that period of time.

“No one has been reported ill or injured, however, also as a precautionary measure, the 28 people inside the building will be decontaminated before being transported to local hospitals,” Olafson said. “We are emphasizing that we are acting to ensure the safety and welfare of our community.”
Late-morning discovery
Authorities were alerted to the threat about 11:20 a.m. “The mailroom opened up an envelope that contained a white powder and a credible threat,” Fahy said. He added he had not seen the letter, which had been delivered by the U.S. Postal Service, and was not aware of the nature of the threat. “They dialed Elgin communications; we dispatched a hazardous material Level 1 response, which gives me a battalion chief, an engine company and an ambulance.”

Fahy said that after reading the letter and examining the white powder, the crew escalated the incident to a Mutual Aid Box Alarm System, or MABAS box alarm, which drew in a response from the outside departments.

That set the stage for what became an elaborate effort to keep the public away from the courthouse even as people continued to participate in activities at The Centre of Elgin, City Hall and Hemmens Cultural Center, where parents were bringing their children for an a later afternoon dance rehearsal.

At The Centre, some people milled about the parking lot, wondering what all the fuss was about that drew television station vans and had two TV helicopters hovering high overhead for at least a part of the afternoon.

The courthouse is at 55 Symphony Way, nestled along the northern edge of Elgin’s Civic Center Plaza, immediately west of The Centre’s parking deck. Hemmens Cultural Center is just southwest of the courthouse, and City Hall is slightly to the southeast.

Authorities cordoned off the area surrounding the courthouse itself, and Symphony Way was largely closed off for use as a staging area for the fire trucks, emergency command vehicle, and the decontamination truck, where ambulances queued up to wait for to transport people who had been inside the courthouse to local hospitals.

Fahy explained that the decontamination unit – a large, red enclosed trailer – includes a place where people can disrobe and place their clothing into yellow plastic evidence bags. A growing heap of the yellow plastic bags was piling up to the rear of the trailed.

Fahy said that after they disrobe, the people then move into a decontamination shower inside the trail. After the shower, he said, they receive a fresh set of clothing to wear before stepping into an awaiting ambulance for a ride to a nearby hospital.

“Because (the result of tests on the substance) is still inconclusive, we have an obligation to (decontaminate) these people – get them clean and get some baseline processes done on them,” Fahy said, adding that also is why the response to the threat was escalated to such an aggressive level.

“I’m hoping it was coffee creamer,” Fahy said.

Fahy said ambulances were transporting two people at a time to St. Alexius Medical Center in Hoffman Estates and Elgin’s Provena Saint Joseph and Sherman Hospitals.

Fahy estimated at about 5 p.m. that crews would remain on the scene for at least another.
Self-assessment ahead
Elgin’s last significant hazardous materials call came in February at a home on Ash Drive. In that incident, residents complaining of a chemical odor were evacuated from an apartment complex. The material turned out to be cayenne pepper.

Once the work is done, Fahy said he and the chiefs of all the other fire departments involved will assess their individual department’s perspective of the response. The chiefs will bring their assessments to the MABAS chiefs’ meeting.

“MABAS has a haz-mat division, and what we do is evaluate what we did, the lessons learned and what we can do better next time,” Fahy said.

He added that all of the agencies involved in then response are keeping a running tab of the cost, which could be tacked on as restitution if anyone is convicted of making the threat.

“It’s going to be a pretty big bill,” Fahy said.