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Suspicious mail at UO spurs tests.


The FBI is investigating a white powder that arrived in a threatening letter to a University of Oregon physics professor Thursday, but Lane County's top public health official and an FBI spokeswoman said it's unlikely that the substance is anthrax.

The letter had a postmark from Malaysia and was several pages long, Eugene

city officials said. The powder spilled out when a worker opened the envelope, police said.

The scare prompted at least one UO employee and five Eugene hazardous materials workers to get nasal swabs at McKenzie-Willamette Hospital in Springfield. The hospital shut down its emergency room for 40 minutes as a precaution while it decontaminated the area.

Dr. Sarah Hendrickson, the county's public health officer, said she should have the results of a preliminary test for anthrax by late this morning, but doesn't expect the laboratory to find evidence of the disease.

"It's unlikely that this is anthrax because there have been no incidents anywhere else" in the West, she said. "But I'm not going to say it's not. It's very unlikely. In terms of likelihood, I would worry more about being struck by lightning."

FBI spokeswoman Beth Anne Steele in Portland also said people shouldn't be unduly alarmed. "As far as we know, there's no known threat against any place or person in Oregon," Steele said.

The FBI will immediately let the public know if tests show any positive indication of anthrax, she said.

"It's a very, very rare occurrence for a sample to come back positive as we've seen on the East Coast, and we've had nothing on the West Coast," she said.

In addition to today's preliminary test, technicians at the Oregon State Public Health Laboratory in Portland will try to grow anthrax from the sample. They'll know within 72 hours if spores are present, Hendrickson said.

If it does turn out to be anthrax, the county has access to enough antibiotics - here and from other West Coast cities if need be - to treat people who may have been exposed within 12 hours, Hendrickson said. A fax system also exists for alerting area medical clinics to recommended treatments, she said.

Since letters with anthrax first showed up at media and congressional offices on the East Coast, four people have died of inhalation anthrax. Six other people have contracted inhalation anthrax and seven have contracted the skin form of the disease, but they all have been treated and survived.

The events at the UO began to unfold Thursday morning, when a woman assistant opened the letter in a small office on the second floor of Willamette Hall, a large science building on East 13th Avenue across from the Erb Memorial Union. She then notified a male professor, who was nearby and came into the office.

The woman had received training in mail-handling techniques after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent discovery of letters containing anthrax spores on the East Coast, a UO spokeswoman said.

After discovering the powder, the assistant and the professor immediately sealed the envelope in another container and summoned campus police. Campus officers notified Eugene police, who then called fire personnel, the FBI and a postal inspector for assistance.

UO officials sealed off the room and shut down the building's ventilation system until a hazardous materials team from the Eugene Fire Department removed the letter several hours later and turned it over to the FBI for testing.

The letter was delivered directly to Willamette Hall by the U.S. Postal Service rather than going through the usual campus mail sorting office. The building is one of several that gets some of its mail directly from mail carriers because faculty and staff there often deal with time-sensitive grant applications and other communications.

No one answered the phone at the Eugene post office, and it was unclear whether postal officials were taking any steps to test the carrier who delivered the letter or the postal facilities where it was processed.

A UO employee walked into McKenzie-Willamette Hospital's emergency department at 4:15 p.m. for testing. Doctors took a nasal swab from the man, and he was released by 6 p.m.

Hospital spokeswoman Rosie Pryor said she didn't know if the man received antibiotics as a precaution. Authorities wouldn't say who the employee was.

The hospital locked down its emergency department as a precaution, Pryor said. Patients in the waiting area were evacuated to another area of the hospital while the hospital's hazardous material team decontaminated the emergency department, she said.

Hospital employees were stationed at all entrances through the night so if others exposed to the powder showed up they could be directed to the emergency room.

Five firefighters who donned hazardous materials suits and responded at the UO received nasal swabs, said District Fire Chief Paul Dammen.

After the powder was discovered, UO officials didn't evacuate Willamette Hall, but the head of the physics department notified faculty, students and workers in the building and advised them that they could leave if they felt nervous about the situation. It's not clear how many people chose to leave, but physics department chairman Detrich Belitz said it appeared to be a small number.

"We all obviously hope it's a hoax, but you never know until you check," he said.

A private hazardous materials company was brought in late Thursday to clean the office and an adjoining room as a precaution. The rooms will be reopened once the cleanup is complete. It's not expected to be a long closure.

"We didn't think it was necessary to disrupt business in a large area of the university when we knew we had a situation that was contained," said Lt. Joan Saylor of the UO public safety department.

Eugene police Capt. Steve Swenson, who is leading the local police investigation, said emergency workers reacted appropriately.

"This fits the profile of what we've seen in the past around real events," he said. "It's either the real thing or a well-done hoax. You don't want to treat it as a hoax and 10 days later have a lot of people get sick from it."

Reporter Diane Dietz contributed to this report.


The University of Oregon has set up a recorded hot line to provide updates on the incident. The number is 346-5692.
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Title Annotation:Threat: The FBI suspects a letter containing powder is a hoax, but police and health officials respond cautiously.; General News
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Nov 16, 2001
Previous Article:A mail scare - just as they were talking terrorism.
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