Scares on rise since attacks

Jangled nerves lead to increased reports of suspicious activity

Liquid falls from Shore sky

October 11, 2001|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

Neither Henry L. Outten nor his son, L.H., thought much about the white liquid that fell from the sky as they built a house in the Eastern Shore town of Trappe until an hour or so later, when they "got to talking about the times we're living in."

Then they decided maybe they better call the police, and 10 minutes later "all hell broke loose," the elder Outten said.

State police showed up Tuesday night and closed off the tiny neighborhood off U.S. 50 with crime scene tape. The Talbot County Fire Department arrived, then hazardous materials crews from Cambridge, Salisbury and the state Department of the Environment dressed in protective gear, and neighbors who couldn't get to their homes crowded the streets.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in The Sun yesterday about terrorism scares throughout Maryland misidentified the police department that closed a residence building at Towson University after a suspicious bottle was discovered.
Towson University police closed Millennium Hall after the bottle containing an unknown liquid was discovered. The liquid has not been identified. The writing on the bottle, originally taken for Arabic, was German.

By 9:30 p.m. Tuesday, Department of the Environment officials decided that the substance, described as having an oily base and a crystalline center, was harmless, and began letting people return to their homes. They still haven't identified the liquid.

State police say they were following standard procedure for reports of unknown substances. But since Sept. 11, what used to be considered standard now underscores the jangled nerves that have set off scares again and again around Maryland.

Washington Metro Police took passengers off a Green Line train Tuesday and shut down a Prince George's County station for six hours after a 23-year-old man armed with a gun and a knife sprayed a clear liquid inside the train. They found later that the liquid was a cleaning agent and contained no biological or chemical threat.

Prince George's County fire officials evacuated 10 homes in a Hyattsville neighborhood for several hours Tuesday night while authorities destroyed a suspected bomb found on the undercarriage of a car.

The "bomb" turned out to be a tracking device apparently attached to the car by a private investigator who wanted to keep tabs on the owner.

Yesterday, Baltimore County police sealed off Millennium Hall, a private apartment complex that houses about 600 Towson University students, after someone found a bottle labeled with what appeared to be Arabic writing and containing powder. About two hours later, the powder was declared harmless, and students returned to their apartments.

In Baltimore, police and sheriff's deputies blocked off traffic around the city courthouses on Calvert Street for about an hour yesterday after they found an unattended gym bag that they feared might contain a bomb. About 1:25 p.m., bomb squad officers fired a round from a remote-controlled robot into the bag, which then ripped apart, spilling a bra, jeans, toothpaste and boots onto the street.

And Dr. Georges Benjamin, state health secretary, said pharmacists have told department officials they are being asked to fill increasing numbers of prescriptions for antibiotics as fears of a biological attack increase. Chief among those medications is Ciproflaxacin, known as Cipro, which is used to treat anthrax.

Benjamin warned against stockpiling the drugs, saying people who use them inappropriately risk catching other diseases. On a broader scale, increased misuse of antibiotics could result in the diseases they are meant to treat becoming more resistant.

He said physicians need to try to calm their patients' fears rather than write prescriptions for diseases they don't have.

In the Talbot County incident, the Outtens were working on the foundation of a house at Seymour Drive and Barber Road about 4:30 p.m. when the white substance splattered across a large sheet of plastic they had just laid. Two blobs splattered H.L., one on the back of the neck and one on his shirt. "It was kind of like white toothpaste, and it fell in blobs," the elder Outten said. "When it hit some places it kind of piled up like a Hershey Kiss."

The men saw an airplane flying overhead and joked that something must have come out of the plane, but didn't give it any more thought until after the younger Outten took a shower.

Authorities arrived and herded some residents into a nearby convenience store and told others to remain in their homes.

Pady Short, who lives across from the house the Outtens are building, said she and some of her neighbors were "just stuck" at the Shore Stop until about 9:30. "Everybody had their own story about what was going on," she said.

The Department of the Environment took air samples and tested the substance for volatile organic compounds and a range of chemicals, but found nothing, said spokesman Richard McIntyre. Samples were taken to laboratories for further tests.

By 9:30 p.m., the emergency crews had packed up and residents returned to their homes.

"It was the longest four hours of my life," said William E. Mullikin, emergency management director for Talbot County.

"Until we know more, we can't tell," said John Verrico, another Department of the Environment spokesman. "But we don't believe it is anything of concern."

Verrico said he understands the anxieties. "In this heightened state of awareness and fear we are in right now, for obvious reasons, it's easy to see how any unknown substance can cause concern."

The Associated Press and Sun staff writers Alec MacGillis, Del Quentin Wilber and Michael Dresser contributed to this article.

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