False calls, hoaxes keep Oklahoma authorities on guard

Monday, November 5th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TULSA, Okla. (AP) _ Not a single case of anthrax has been reported in Oklahoma, but the fear has surely arrived.

It came in a threatening letter to the attorney general's office _ and in a box of Ding Dongs sent to health officials for testing. It closed a Wal-Mart when powder fell from a stack of magazines. It drove a police chief 265 miles, sirens screaming, for help dealing with what he now suspects was powdered sugar.

Fears that terrorism has touched things as ordinary as $5 bills or a quart of blueberries has left health and law officials scrambling almost daily.

``You have to treat each one of them like the real thing,'' said Oklahoma Highway Patrol Capt. Mike Grimes. ``The reality of it is we know so far we haven't found any material in the state of Oklahoma.''

No one faults the public for being jittery. There have been 13 cases of anthrax nationwide, including four deaths.

The Oklahoma State Health Department's Oklahoma City lab has been swamped, conducting tests on nearly 400 samples in recent weeks. But ``less than a handful'' of those samples stemmed from hoaxes involving threats, said FBI spokesman Gary Johnson.

Ordinary powders and dirt have become suspect, said Dr. Robert Petrone, the Health Department's bioterrorism preparedness and response coordinator. Some of the submissions, like the cupcakes and blueberries, are baffling.

``Sometimes it's difficult to discern what triggered the initial concern,'' he said. ``Sometimes you look at a letter and envelope and see nothing.''

But the lab tests everything, first putting the suspect item under a microscope to look for the presence of bacteria or spores. Any such biological material is then germinated, which in the case of anthrax takes only 30 minutes.

The germinated material is then tested specifically for the presence of anthrax, Petrone said.

Health officials also attempt to grow cultures from any suspect substance brought to the lab. They take a reading after 24 hours. The samples are held for 72 hours.

Guymon Police Chief Harold Tyson knew within a couple of hours Wednesday that the powdery envelope he sped from the Panhandle to Oklahoma City did not contain anthrax. But the scare had already gripped his community for hours.

A postal employee discovered the powder-filled envelope in a mailbox. Another woman's mail had come in contact with the envelope, leading police to shut down a bank and a newspaper office she had visited.

As Tyson rushed to Oklahoma City, firefighters were decontaminating clothing, the postal worker worried she had anthrax and Tyson's daughter was in tears, he said. The ordeal kept him from his post for 24 hours.

``Every time we get something like this we have to treat it as a real deal until the lab says it's not,'' Tyson said. ``What if it is the real deal?''

The FBI declined to say how many hoaxes have taken place, but the tricksters can face both state and federal prosecution.

``We will investigate and prosecute anyone involved with sending a hoax anthrax package or letter,'' Johnson said. ``Thus far, we have had very few cases in Oklahoma that were hoaxes.''

The Tulsa Fire Department's Hazardous Materials Unit has seen its calls double to about 12 per day since the first anthrax scare on Oct. 11 at St. John Medical Center, said Capt. Hubert Rouse.

``We've gotten a little more educated and familiar with what we're trying to look for and in some cases we've been trying to eliminate runs,'' he said.

The scares have touched both rural and urban communities. Grimes said the Highway Patrol has helped out some small town police forces dealing with scares.

``Let's say they've got a one- or two-man police department,'' he said. ``It ties them up and keeps them from other calls.''

Law officers urge the public to remain cautious. The state set up a hot line to answer questions about anthrax, smallpox and mail-handling precautions.

But Petrone said the public's concerns, while understandable, have been disproportionate to the actual risk. Oklahomans should simply throw away items they consider suspicious but not necessarily threatening, he said.

``We would hope once the public gains more experience they can learn more about what really needs to be tested,'' he said.

The Guymon police chief said he's been reading up on what constitutes a real threat. When a woman called asking what to do with a case of beer that was grainy and salty, Tyson had an answer.

``I told her to take it back to the store and get another case,'' he said.