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October 25, 2001

Pitt, FBI offer reward in anthrax hoax case

Pitt will match the $5,000 reward money the FBI is offering for the arrest and conviction of the perpetrator of an anthrax hoax on campus.

Chancellor Mark Nordenberg announced the reward yesterday, Oct. 24. "We hope that this matching reward will help bring to justice the individual or individuals responsible for these hoaxes," Nordenberg said.

Two 911 phone calls on Oct. 13 — during Pitt's homecoming weekend — threatening that anthrax would be released in the William Pitt Union and Hillman Library prompted a partial evacuation of the lower Pittsburgh campus and the commercial area between Bouquet and Bellefield streets along Fifth and Forbes avenues.

The calls were made between 9 and 10 p.m. from Oakland pay phones. Pittsburgh police joined campus police in searching the two threatened University buildings. An "all-clear" announcement was issued by police at approximately 11:30 p.m., when officials determined that the calls were a hoax.

Interim University Police Chief Tim Delaney acknowledged that there was some confusion on Oct. 13 between instructions given by the Pittsburgh police and the campus police in response to the hoax. "That has been worked out," Delaney said. "We've agreed on the protocol to be followed in the event of another threat. Basically, in the event of a bioterroristic substance, only the buildings where the substances are, or are threatened to be, should be evacuated. It's better to have people who are inside other buildings stay there."

The apparent perpetrator of the Oct. 13 Oakland hoax later that night twice threatened a North Side apartment complex with similar 911 calls, Pittsburgh police reported.

Last week, the FBI released tapes of the four 911 calls and offered a reward of $5,000 for the arrest and conviction of the caller. Anyone with information on the hoaxes should call the FBI at 412/471-2000.

Chief Delaney said there have been no additional phone threats to the campus. "There have been 19 reports of suspicious letters or packages or objects," he said, "and we, by policy, have sent an officer and supervisor to investigate all of them. We've packaged the items in sealed plastic and delivered them to the Allegheny Fire Academy, which is the FBI compound for investigating packages. We've had no confirmations of any dangerous substances. I think people are being cautious and following the instructions that came out on what to do with suspicious mail or with items that can't be identified, which is to contact us."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, anthrax is a non-contagious acute infectious disease caused by a spore-forming bacterium. Anthrax infection occurs in three forms: cutaneous, which is acquired through an abrasion of the skin; inhalation, which is acquired through air passages from environmental sources, and gastrointestinal, usually contracted by the consumption of meat from infected animals.

Nationally, concerns about anthrax have grown in the last few weeks as documented cases of the potentially deadly disease have been mounting in Florida, Colorado, New York and Washington, D.C. Officials believe that anthrax is being spread through the U.S. mail.

Health, safety and security personnel at Pitt continue to be in a state of high alert following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and subsequent anthrax-related events, according to Robert Hill, executive director of Public Affairs.

"The practices and procedures for biosafety and related matters on our campus, including for personnel in the Office of Environmental Health and Safety, are being examined and there will be some changes," Hill said. "That new information will not be released publicly or put up on the web out of security concerns, because we don't want to let terrorists or other would-be troublemakers know how we will deal with various situations."

Calls to Pitt's Office of Environmental Health and Safety and University Mailing Services about the anthrax scare are being directed to Hill, who declined to say what safety measures, if any, have been taken for Mailing Services personnel here. "It is inappropriate to go into any details publicly about that for the reasons I already stated. I will say that the safety and security of our community is our No. 1 priority," Hill said.

Regarding health and safety concerns, Hill referred Pitt community members to three documents: the Oct. 15 Chancellor's University Update; a University community tip-sheet on procedures for handling mail, and the Oct. 19 edition of the newsletter "UPMC Extra!," which touches on issues of emergency preparedness, procedures following a disaster, frequently asked questions about anthrax, available Internet resources and general security and safety precautions.

Following the Oct. 13 Oakland hoax, Chancellor Nor-denberg issued a campus update. He wrote, in part: "In the current environment, each of us must exercise appropriate caution even while we make certain that fear does not deprive us of the many satisfactions that come from full and active lives….

"Our overriding concern is for the health and safety of every member of the University community," the chancellor wrote.

Regarding mail, the University distributed a notice on indicators and procedures for handling suspicious packages.

According to the tip-sheet, indicators for suspicious letters and parcels include: excessive postage; incorrect titles; titles without names; oily stains or discoloration; rigid envelopes; restrictive markings, such as "confidential," or "personal"; excessive securing material, such as masking tape, string, etc.; lopsided or uneven envelopes; no return address, and poorly written or typed envelopes.

The tip-sheet said that if any of the indicators are present, an expert should assess the letter or package. Individuals should notify the University Police of suspicious packages by calling 412/624-2121 or 811.

If, after opening a letter or package, suspicious contents are found — particularly a powdery substance and/or a note saying that the parcel contained anthrax — the following steps should be taken:

* Immediately call the University Police;

* Close the letter or package;

* Place the entire item in a plastic bag, if possible;

* Do not pass the parcel around;

* Secure the room and exit;

* Keep your hands away from your face, and avoid contact with eyes, nose and throat;

* Wash your hands.

Hill also recommended the Oct. 19 edition of the UPMC Extra! newsletter. "UPMC has put together information, some of it specific to hospital and medical personnel, but some of it of value to all members of our community," Hill said.

The newsletter is available at:

Hill added that updated campus information on security and safety issues is available on the Pitt's homepage:

–Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature,Volume 34 Issue 5

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