Threat of anthrax chills city for a day

Leaders urged calm, caution

no evidence of attack is found

War On Terorism

Anthrax Scare

October 18, 2001|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Baltimore authorities scrambled yesterday to respond to the first apparently credible terrorist threat against the city, alerting residents and business and school leaders to the possibility of an imminent anthrax attack.

City officials encouraged businesses to secure their buildings and ventilation systems and warned hospitals to be on the lookout for victims. Police sent undercover officers into public areas, looking for suspicious activities, while stepping up inspections of trucks carrying hazardous materials.

With no evidence of an attack apparent yesterday evening, city officials said they would continue to be vigilant.

"There was no catastrophic event at 1:15 that had a bang or a boom or an airplane crash, but these sort of biological attacks are silent things," Mayor Martin O'Malley said last night.

The anthrax warning came in an 8:30 a.m. phone call from the special agent in charge of the FBI's Baltimore office, Lynne A. Hunt, to Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris. Three hours later O'Malley and Norris made the threat public, with the mayor saying that it contained "very general, nonspecific, unconfirmed information of an anthrax incident proposed to occur in Baltimore at 1 or 1:15 this afternoon."

"There was nothing in the way of mode, of who or where, there was nothing like that," O'Malley said. FBI officials would not give details on the threat or its origins.

Norris and O'Malley said they alerted the public because it was a "matter of public interest" and they wanted people to be extra vigilant.

"We are walking a fine line," O'Malley said. "You don't want to panic and alarm people. People are smart and aware of the changing nature of the world. We need to start getting used to the new reality."

Residents generally reacted calmly, though many downtown workers stayed indoors at lunchtime rather than risk exposure to an airborne attack. First Lady Laura Bush showed up as planned yesterday morning at a school in Brooklyn, where she taught a class.

Norris said he was particularly concerned about the threat in light of what some officials initially said was a particularly dangerous form of anthrax mailed to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.

"It's much more deliverable, according to sources we are talking to," Norris said.

In making the threat public, city officials also called executives at media outlets, including The Sun, to warn them because television networks have been targets.

City schools chief Carmen V. Russo was alerted at 10:30 by the mayor's office. She warned principals and administrators by e-mail to remain alert and to follow emergency procedures in the event of a problem, but kept schools open.

Downtown, managers of office towers closed air-intake valves of ventilation systems as a precaution. Employees in several offices were told to stay put until more information about the potential attack was received.

Some businesses delayed mail deliveries for a day to prevent suspicious packages from entering their buildings.

For a short time, the city's main post office at 900 E. Fayette St. was on a "heightened sense of alert" and employees were not allowed to leave or enter the building, spokesman Bob Novak said.

War Memorial Plaza at 1 p.m. was unusually quiet. Several people said that they were unnerved by the news but not enough to go home or hide.

"I'm worried but I'm not worried," said Raymond January, 21, a law clerk who did go outdoors. "I am not letting it get to me. My theory is that if it happens, it happens. I'm not going to let it slow me down."

Yesterday afternoon, city health officials said the threat appeared to be a false alarm.

"At this time, we have no evidence of any kind of [anthrax] release in the city," said Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, the health commissioner. "But this has been a good dry run to make sure we're all as prepared as we need to be."

He said the city had plenty of antibiotics to cope with an attack.

Norris and other city officials said later that it was too early to tell whether the threat was simply a false alarm.

In some ways, the response to the threat was a reflection of the O'Malley administration's intensive anti-terrorism campaign - the chief hallmark of which has been to take any potential attack seriously. O'Malley and Norris hold frequent security briefings, and they hired a former high-ranking New York City police officer, Louis R. Anemone, to consult on terrorism preparedness.

Anemone has announced he is leaving, but yesterday, the Board of Estimates approved the hiring of another consultant, retired FBI criminal intelligence chief Richard J. Hunt, to help prevent an attack on the city. O'Malley and Norris have also discussed with the FBI the sharing of more information with police, an issue the two had complained about in testimony before Congress this month.

Late yesterday afternoon, O'Malley met in Washington with high-level FBI and Justice Department officials to discuss the issue.

O'Malley said he was "encouraged" by the meeting.

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