Tuesday, October 09, 2001

False anthrax alarm heightens Tristate anxiety

Security tight across the region

By Tom O'Neill
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Firefighters wearing isolation suits walk into a medical office on Montgomery road in Sycamore Township.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
| ZOOM |
        It was no normal Monday. Instead, it was a day in which the shape of how Tristate life is being altered by the Sept. 11 attacks — and America's retaliation — came more clearly into focus.

        Truckers worried about hijackings and a local company took greater care to protect them. The closing of a Sycamore Township office by a threat of anthrax contamination and increased security at the airport were noted as heightened safety awareness took hold across Greater Cincinnati.

        Public safety officials used the first day since U.S.-led bombings in Afghanistan to focus public attention on the need for reasonable concern and the peril of runaway panic, while addressing water supplies and biochemical attack response.

        “There is a heightened alert for medical providers and infectious disease control practitioners in hospitals and laboratories across the nation,” said Cincinnati health commissioner Dr. Malcolm Adcock.

        Many water departments, including Cincinnati's, have increased security and conducted more frequent water-quality tests.

        Increased security also played out Monday at airports, including Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International.

        “It's so scary because there's so much uncertainty,” DulanyAnning, 33, of Hyde Park, said as she arrived here on a flight from Chicago with her 9-month-old son, Welby. “I can't imagine anyone in the country not thinking about this. I just think it's so sad. Life really has changed.”

        In Sycamore Township, firefighters decontaminated five workers and one deputy for possible anthrax Monday after the discovery of a suspicious package at Cincinnati Psychological Services, 7654 Montgomery Road. Fire Chief B.J. Jetter said the envelope, which arrived in the business' mail on Saturday, had a suspicious label and scrawling. He would not provide further details but he said the decontamination efforts were not unusual.

        The package was turned over to the FBI in Cincinnati for analysis, which could take a week or more, said Special Agent Ed Boldt.

        Hamilton County health officials determined there was no threat to the five employees who handled the envelope or to a deputy who first arrived on the scene because the package was sealed, Chief Jetter said. The office was reopened by mid-afternoon, three hours later.

        Dr. Adcock said medical officials here are working with the U.S. Public Health Service and the federal Centers for Disease Control. Should a chemical or biological attack occur here, he said, the city could expect help from six caches of medical supplies held by the CDC that could be shipped to Cincinnati within 12 hours.

        Tristate officials also have made tentative arrangements for a regional stockpile of emergency medical supplies as part of the federal Metropolitan Medical Response System program. Among those supplies are antibiotics — including Cipro and penicillin — which can treat anthrax if it's caught early.

        Anthrax is a bacterium found naturally in cattle, sheep and other hoofed animals. In humans it is considered a potentially powerful biological weapon because it forms hardy spores, which can be deadly when inhaled.

        But it takes inhaling 8,000 to 10,000 spores before a human can become infected, according to the U.S. Army Chemical and Biological Defense Command. Only 18 cases of anthrax inhalation were documented in the United States in the 20th century.

        Even the freedom of speech is being exercised with more care. A Wilmington College speech scheduled for today by Mavis Leno — an activist against the Taliban's treatment of women and wife of Tonight Show host Jay Leno — was canceled due to security concerns.

        Mrs. Leno and other feminists have been working to increase attention to Afghan women's plight under the Taliban since the regime took over in 1996.

        In Hebron, lines at the Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport's checkpoints were about 80 feet long at mid-afternoon. But many flyers said the inconvenience was a small price to pay for the safety we used to take for granted.

        Brian Hamil understands. He's seen security at the airport at Tel Aviv, Israel. “I don't know if I'm more secure,” the Beloit, Wis. man said as he arrived in Terminal 3. “But I'm more aware.”

        Mr. Hamil works for Hanita Cutting Tools Inc., which is headquartered in Israel, where extremely tight airport security is the norm.

        “When we got attacked,” he said of his bosses in Israel, “they sent condolences, saying basically, "We know what you're going through, and now you know what we've been going through.'”

        Still, for many Americans, the transition to a new reality in public safety has been a jarring one.

        Midwest Environmental Transport in West Chester recently made a costly decision because of possible threats to the trucking industry.

        Midwest, whose 13 drivers haul hazardous material from the East Coast to Missouri and Oklahoma, decided to pay for hotel rooms for truckers each night on the road — doubling what had been allotted. The reason: It didn't want its drivers sleeping in their cabs, and thus potentially vulnerable to terrorist assaults.

        “We've had six DOT (federal Department of Transportation) inspections last week on the roadside,” the company's safety director, Doug Spears, said Monday. “We usually average one, maybe two a week. You think of how many thousands of trucks are out there.”

        For Midwest, unusual questions drew swift response. On Sept. 14, two men described as being Middle Eastern asked for job applications and information on the materials hauled by the firm.

        Told to go across the street to corporate headquarters to apply, the men left.

        Midwest officials reported it to police. The following week, a phone call from a man with a Middle Eastern accent inquiring about driving schools prompted a follow-up call from the FBI in the Chicago area, where the call was believed to have originated.

        “The majority of the industry has been lax,” Mr. Spears said. “So we'll be better in the long run.”

        At the Florence truck stop, big rig trucker Joe Griffin, 40, of Mulberry, Ark., got right to the point.

        “You hear a lot on the CB about looking for (men of Middle Eastern descent),” he said. “A lot of it is exaggerated, but it's like a snowball going downhill.”

        Contributing were staff writers Tim Bonfield and Sheila McLaughlin and contributor Sarah Buerhle.

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