Annapolis Fire and Explosive Services unit is parked near the… (Barbara Haddock Taylor,…)
Two small packages, addressed to Gov. Martin O'Malley and another state official, ignited 20 minutes apart in government buildings in Annapolis and Hanover Thursday, launching a wave of concern throughout the state.
The only injuries reported were to the fingers of a state mailroom worker, who refused treatment — yet federal and state officials locked down state government mailrooms indefinitely and responded with a massive public safety effort that captured the focus of the cable news networks.
In Baltimore, police closed roads during rush hour and evacuated at least two other buildings after concerns were raised about packages found in the city, both of which turned out to be harmless office supplies. And University of Maryland officials in College Park sent an alert to employees warning in capital letters "DO NOT OPEN ANY MAIL."
"This is clearly an act of terrorism," said Michael Greenberger, director of the University of Maryland Center for Health and Homeland Security. "It's designed to put people in fear of everyday activities."
The first "incendiary device" was opened around 12:25 p.m. by a mailroom employee, who singed his fingers, in the Jeffrey Building, just steps from the State House in downtown Annapolis. The small white, book-sized package, which was affixed with five holiday-themed stamps and addressed to O'Malley, ignited in a small puff of smoke and smelled of sulfur.
Roughly 20 miles away, at the Department of Transportation's headquarters in Hanover, another package — this one addressed to MDOT Secretary Beverley Swaim-Staley — produced a similar outcome.
The State House package was accompanied by a note that read: "Report suspicious activity. Total [expletive]. You have created your own self-fulfilling prophecy," according to source familiar with the investigation.
O'Malley later speculated that the note referred to the overhead highway signs calling for motorists to alert authorities with terrorism tips.
"So somebody doesn't like seeing those signs," he said.
Both buildings were evacuated and certified explosive specialists from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives responded to both scenes, along with agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Maryland State Police and fire officials.
"We live in a time when things like this can happen," said O'Malley, who tried to quickly get the word out to other State Houses after the news broke, initially concerned that there was a national network of bombs.
But by the time he left Annapolis for the Maryland Association of Counties conference in Cambridge Thursday afternoon, he seemed comfortable that the situation was under control, quipping that he was surprised to be targeted. "I haven't come out with my budget yet," O'Malley said.
Others weren't so relaxed.
Lobbyist Gerard Evans said he was at Annapolis City Hall waiting to meet with Mayor Joshua Cohen around 2:20 p.m. when a police bomb squad, in full gear, stormed it and quickly ushered the mayor out of the building. "It happened all of the sudden. I'll tell you, it was really scary."
In Baltimore, police shut down a portion of Martin Luther King Boulevard in the city to investigate a reported suspicious package in a state office building that houses the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. At least eight police cars and one bus, several unmarked cars, a hazardous material truck and U.S. Homeland Security truck were parked outside the complex, which was surrounded by police tape.
The package turned out to be a box of batteries. A similar suspicious package found at the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse was later determined to be printing toner.
Still, a half dozen safety vehicles, including a fire truck and ambulance, responded to the courthouse while the investigation was underway, and sheriff's deputies were forcing all pedestrians to walk on sidewalks opposite the courthouse.
"Everyone is on high alert," said police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi.
Law enforcement officials compared the attacks to the anthrax scare of 2001, in which letters containing the deadly spores killed five people and sickened 17 others.
Such attacks through the mail go "way back" historically, said Michael Romano, a spokesman for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, which is working on the case with state and federal investigators.
The U.S. Postal System "ramped up" its number of investigative response teams after the anthrax attacks, Romano said. It also implemented a new screening system at nearly 300 processing and distribution centers throughout the country, including in Baltimore.