Oozing Package Causes Scare At B'nai B'rith Office In D.c.

Substance Initially Thought To Be Anthrax Later Found Not To Be Life-threatening

April 25, 1997|By Ellen Gamerman and Tom Bowman | Ellen Gamerman and Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- A package oozing an unknown substance later found not to be life-threatening was discovered in the mailroom of the international headquarters of B'nai B'rith yesterday, prompting the quarantine of 108 employees into the evening and triggering a terrorist scare.

No serious injuries were reported, although at least 14 people stripped to their underwear outside the building and were decontaminated by hazardous-materials experts with a spray of water and a bleach-like substance.

The incident snarled traffic for hours around the downtown building of the Jewish service organization in northwest Washington, six blocks from the White House. The streets near the building on Rhode Island Avenue off Scott Circle were sealed during the nine-hour scare.

Authorities said the word "anthrax" was written on the envelope. Anthrax, a deadly infectious disease that afflicts cattle and sheep, also can be fatal to humans.

Shortly before 9 p.m., however, Thomas Pickard, assistant director of the FBI's Washington office, said the material was not anthrax or bubonic plague, another contaminant suspected by authorities.

He said laboratory tests had determined that the substance was "not life-threatening," but had yet to identify it. The FBI was investigating the matter as a terrorist incident and warning other Jewish organizations around the country to "be on the lookout," Pickard said.

The scare began around 11: 30 a.m., when a worker in the mailroom noticed a yellow 8-by-10-inch mailing envelope leaking a red substance. The worker called the building's security chief, authorities said, and hazardous-materials experts in blue-and-white protective suits and oxygen tanks rushed to the scene to decontaminate the area.

The package contained a shattered glass petri dish and a rambling and philosophical two-page letter that did not appear to be threatening, said FBI spokeswoman Susan Lloyd.

Jess Hordes, the Washington director of the Anti-Defamation League, a sister agency to B'nai B'rith, said the letter was characterized to him as "anti-Jewish."

The package was taken to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, where military researchers conducted tests for biological contaminants, Lloyd said.

The security chief and mailroom worker were the only two B'nai B'rith employees directly exposed to the package. Along with 12 hazardous-materials experts, they were decontaminated in a makeshift operation near the building, said Alvin Carter, a Fire Department spokesman.

An unidentified 72-year-old B'nai B'rith employee who had no contact with the package was the only person hospitalized, and that was for an unrelated medical problem. He was reported in good condition last night, authorities said.

Two B'nai B'rith employees complained of respiratory problems, but by last night, Pickard called those symptoms "mostly anxiety."

Workers inside the building said they spent the afternoon hoping that they would not be sprayed down outside the building like some of their colleagues. They were released about 8: 30 last night, after giving their home phone numbers to authorities.

Pub Date: 4/25/97

Sun staff writer Mark Matthews contributed to this article.

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