Author Topic: New anthrax scare in Florida  (Read 3813 times)

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Offline chowder

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New anthrax scare in Florida
« on: April 03, 2009, 10:19:19 am »

Authorities Say White Powder Has Tested Negative For Anthrax


Highlands Today, News Channel 8 and The Tampa Tribune

Published: April 2, 2009

SEBRING - After a long night at Florida Hospital Heartland Medical Center, Sarah Sweeney Krepski was ready to go home and go to sleep.
It was just after 3 a.m. Thursday, but it would be more than 20 hours before the 54-year-old freelance writer, who came in for a knee injury, would finally leave.

"They told me there was a problem," she said by phone from the hospital waiting room early Thursday. "We were told that there were about 30 cars in the parking lot that had envelopes left on the windshields. One of the employees opened one of the envelopes and a white powder fell out."

So did a note, Krepski said.

It said, "Beware of anthrax."

So began a daylong ordeal that saw the hospital and the town hall of the country club community of Sun 'n Lake locked down, officials from more than a half-dozen agencies converging on Sebring and dozens of suspicious plain white envelopes, about the size of thank-you cards, discovered in at least 30 locations.

By Thursday night, preliminary results from a Tampa lab determined that the white powder was not anthrax and was not harmful to people, according to the FBI. It will take 48 to 72 hours to determine exactly what the powder is.

Even though the substance turned out not to be anthrax, whoever distributed the envelope could face federal charges.

Forty-eight envelopes were found on the windshields of vehicles parked at the hospital, said Highlands County Sheriff Susan Benton. About 30 more were found in surrounding areas.

"The one time I go to ER and get my knee dealt with, I walk into a damn anthrax scare," Krepski said.

Deputies are talking to people in connection with the case, Benton said. Investigators would not offer specifics about who the people are or what their role might have been.

So far, there are no eyewitnesses, deputies say.

Mailboxes And Lockdowns

Jeff Larnard, a substitute mail carrier, was going about his normal mail delivery procedure Thursday morning when he found five or six suspicious envelopes.

"They were the size of a thank-you note, with a smiley face on the back," Larnard said.

Larnard grabbed the envelopes out of a mailbox in front of a home on Orduna Drive in Sebring. He immediately threw the envelopes back in the box and contacted the Highlands County Sheriff's Office.

The packages were plain white business envelopes with no labels or return addresses.

The Sun 'n Lake town hall, about a half mile from the hospital, was put on lockdown after the envelopes were found, Highlands County spokeswoman Gloria Rybinski said.

Eleven envelopes containing a white powder were found in the area, she said. Rybinski did not specify where, but Benton said envelopes were showing up in residential mailboxes.

Investigators found no more than one envelope at each of the other 30 locations. Random residents were affected, including one police officer, Benton said. Those exposed to the white powder were asked to remain at home until investigators received lab results, she said.

At least one person went through a decontamination procedure during the scare, sheriff's office spokeswoman Lisa Burley said.

Hospital staff members were exhausted, but they were heroes when it came to dealing with patients and patients' families, said Tim Cook, chief executive and president of Florida Hospital Heartland Division, which runs the Sebring hospital and two others.

Staff are trained to handle disasters, including hurricanes and bioterrorism, Cook said.

Krepski said she saw some hospital employees in hazmat suits, and others did what they could to keep guests as comfortable as possible.

All hospital employees and people exposed to the substance were cleared by authorities when lab results were released.

'You Do What You Need To Do'

Locked inside the hospital and cut off from the world, Krepski took matters into her own hands to find out what was going on, she said.

"I went up and used one of the staff computers," she said. "I am sure they were not thrilled with me, and I don't blame them, but you do what you need to do."

Krepski said she was relieved the white powder tested negative for anthrax.

"I can't wait to get home and get a shower," she said.

A big fan of the television show "ER," Krepski laughed when reminded that her real-life hospital drama ended just hours before the final episode depicting life at County General Hospital.

She said she planned to watch the three-hour extravaganza after her shower.

"There you go," she said. "What a good tie-in."

Highlands Today reporter Laura Nesbitt and Tribune reporter Ray Reyes contributed to this report.