Anthrax scare at MSU leaves long-term scars
anthrax scare occurred at MSU Graduate Schools Linton Hall
on Oct. 12, 2001. Ever since, there have been rumors that 15 women
were forced to strip in front of an entirely male crew of police
officers and firemen all resulting from a police dispatcher
The rumors are true. The women were forced to go through a humiliating
decontamination process for naught. The Keystone Kops element
of the days events would be funny except for the shocking
seriousness of the occurrence. Some of the women are still being
treated for Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome.
City Pulse has pieced together the events from a report by the Lansing
chapter of the ACLU and interviews with the victims. The ACLU will
hold a news conference on Friday, Oct. 11, to detail the events
and call for authorities to improve their procedures.
is the story.
was 1:14 p.m. Oct. 12, 2001, when the dispatcher for the MSU police,
Heidi Williams, received a phone call from Debbie Conlin, an employee
at Linton Halls Graduate School. Conlin reported opening a letter
and feeling a burning sensation go down my throat. And I dont
know if its anything. My co-workers encouraged me to call.
The letter stated the senders purpose was to stop animal
Pulse asked Michigan State University officials to comment on the
anthrax story. Sgt. Florene Taylor, the spokeswoman for the Department
of Police and Public Safety, declined and referred the inquiry to
the University Relations office. Deb Pozega Osburn, the director
of media communications, referred questions to Dr. Elizabet Alexander,
the university physician. Alexander canceled Tuesdays interview
appointment because of an emergency.
procedures were immediately set in motion. The MSU police informed the
FBI, the MSU Office of Radiation, Chemical and Biological Safety and
the East Lansing Fire Department. But like the childrens whispering-message
game of telephone, important information had been confused
in these early moments of communication. At 1:54 p.m dispatcher Williams
informed the East Lansing Fire Department of an envelope with a
powdery substance in it, though Conlin has said nothing about
As it later turned out, the dispatcher had confused the report from
Linton Hall with another call that had reported white powder. Sixteen
minutes earlier, Williams had received a call from a woman at the University
Club reporting that a month before, on Sept. 5, shed opened a
suspicious envelope containing white powder. Now, the two incidences
had gotten mixed up. The level of response escalated rapidly when
the information at hand suggested an incident involving biological and
chemical contamination related to the mail, MSU Vice President
Fred Poston summarized four weeks after.
Police cordoned off Linton Hall on Oct. 12, 2001, after receiving
a report of anthrax.
2 o clock East Lansing firemen arrived at Linton Hall and met
with an MSU officer. The doors of suite 110, where Debbie Conlin brought
the letter from 118 to make a copy, had been locked and eight employees
told that they would have to be decontaminated and afterward go to Sparrow
Hospital. Carol Bahl, the executive staff assistant to the dean of the
Graduate School, remembers the scene: It almost gained a momentum
of its own. I think they were in a panic since it was the first time
theyd ever had anything like this happen. The adrenalin was going,
and boy, they were going to do it. It was new for everybody.
Hope Johnson, a 21-year old student worker, remembers how her bosses
tried to convince the officials that there was no white powder. No
one was listening, no one cared. The dean of the Graduate School,
Karen Klomparens, called Postons office and other places, attempting
to convey that white powder had never been reported, and
that theyd gotten the wrong message. But the emergency authorities
were going ahead with the procedure. I thought it was ridiculous.
We didnt need to be decontaminated, but we had no choice,
says Hope Johnson.
In a meeting 10 days after the incident with the 15 women, Poston admitted
that the administration had received a phone call from the dean confirming
that there was no powder, according to the ACLU report. But since the
MSU police dispatcher had told him, President Peter McPherson and Provost
Lou Anna Simon otherwise, they agreed to proceed as if powder was involved.
The administration had also been told by Sparrow Hospital that it would
not accept any patients unless they had first been decontaminated.
2:30 p.m. Linton Hall was locked down and employees were sequestered
into three rooms. Lt. Richard Montgomery of the East Lansing Fire Department
later reported a probable biological threat incident. But
at the time, an office worker, Evette Chavez, across the hall from Suite
110, hadnt been informed of this. Seeing that yellow tape now
surrounded the building, and that police and firefighters were all over,
she buzzed her colleagues in Suite 110. They told me that there
was an envelope, but there was nothing in it. It was no big deal, so
I kept working.
Chavez didnt know things had become dangerous until two men in
hazard suits like in E.T. kicked off her door. I was
verbally and physically threatened by a police officer in a hazmat suit,
she said in an interview with City Pulse. Since Chavez refused to go
through the decontamination procedure, she was saved for last. He
said I would be arrested and dragged down the hall, and my cloth would
be ripped off. Chavez sat at her desk until it was her turn. I
had no choice.
4 p.m. the decontamination station outside Room 110 was set up, and
the hazard team continually monitored the air quality. In Pool
One the women were hosed down with water while fully dressed.
In Pool Two there was a large plastic bag of about shoulder
height, in which they undressed and left their wet cloth. The firemen
washed them down with bleach and water solution, with brushes. They
were rinsed down quickly to remove the bleach solution, with a third
solution of water and soap. Finally, the women were given a quarantine
suit to put on, and escorted to the ambulance.
Daniel Sturm/City Pulse
Ward shows the plastic bag in which she had to undress in order
to get decontaminated at MSUs Linton Hall on Oct. 12, 2001.
Pulse spoke with four women who experienced what they described as a
very dehumanizing experience. They felt threatened by the forceful orders
of an all-male emergency team that they take their clothes off. Some
of the women felt that at some point they were on parade, with at least
six suited men standing around them. No medical history on any of the
15 individuals who were decontaminated was ever taken before the decontamination
process. Some women report that they were treated differently: Some
were rinsed three times and some twice, some were brushed, and some
werent. Several women said they were told to hurry, because the
hazard team didnt bring enough air tanks for the suits.
It was definitely a bungled job, said Chavez, who is reminded
every time she smells bleach or she sees firemen of being assaulted
in the place where you work, and where you go five days a week.
She said even one year later she felt angry and violated, and that no
one has been held accountable.
A person who experiences a trauma that induces fear, horror or helplessness
is at risk of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder if certain symptoms persist
such as re-experiencing the event through recollections, flashbacks
and dreams triggered by cues. After the Oct. 12 decontamination procedure,
Linton Halls 15 female employees received three sessions of group
counseling with a psychiatrist. It definitely helped to hear how
other people handled it, said Melissa Granger, another student
employee at the Graduate School. It was not MSU but Klomparens, their
boss, who offered the counseling sessions. The following Monday the
Graduate School employees received a dozen roses for the office from
the vice presidents office. It would have made a big difference
if thered been an effort to call us over the weekend, to see at
least how we were doing, says Carol Bahl, the executive staff
assistant to the dean. She felt a need for answers, not roses.
said the firemen did not look at her or touch her inappropriately. What
bothered me was the fact that there were people just a couple of feet
away from the decontamination area that werent in suits and just
appeared to be standing watching. I dont know who they were. I
remember wondering Why is the air not safe here, and right there
two or three feet further - its OK? The fire
departments report mentions two Office of Radiation, Chemical
and Biological Safety personnel dressed in hooded overalls with a different
type of air filter; other reports mention additional FBI and MSU police
personnel who did not wear air filters.
In addition to their complaints about the miscommunicated report and
failure of the police officials to believe staff that no white
powder had been found, the women reported the lack of privacy
was a serious problem. The hall doors to the Graduate School offices
were closed, but the windows were not covered. People coming downstairs
into the main hall, from the second and third floors and people walking
back and forth between the rooms were able to clearly see the undressed
women. Sheets were only draped in the main lobby doorway to insure privacy
from the outside. Later one of my co-workers told me that she
saw me when I was in the hallway, Bahl said. And on TV we
saw an interview with a guy who said he saw a woman being scrubbed without
Two employees across the hall in room 101 and 102, which is much closer
to suite 110 than 116, where Chavez was quarantined, were allowed to
leave the building. Meanwhile everyone on the second and third floor
of Linton Hall was forced to stay. One employee who sorts the mail for
the building went shopping at Mejiers. Why wasnt the
mail person decontaminated? wonders Bill Castanier, an ACLU spokesman.
5:10, Chavez was decontaminated at Linton Hall. Now three ambulances
drove the 15 women to Sparrow Hospital for a second round of decontamination.
Paramedics in the ambulances told them to take cool showers for the
next few days because the chemicals could seep into their pores if they
took hot showers. Then Sparrow medical staff gave the MSU employees
hot showers upon their arrival at the hospital. Arriving back at Linton
Hall by 8:30 p.m, a surreal day ended for Chavez and the last seven
in her group. Their clothes were still in the bags theyd left
them in when being contaminated. An officer in the lobby told
us to just wash our clothes as usual, recalled Bahl. She said
that some women even took the plastic bags back home.
called the incident a Laurel and Hardy routine. Considering that this
community had a university, a state government and BioPort the
only U.S. producer of a vaccine against anthrax, which provides the
military its stockpile one would think a procedure would be in
place that clearly delineated what should take place when emergency
crew enters a building, said Castanier. But they began a decontamination
procedure not even knowing what theyre decontaminating. They had
fact, the MSU police wasnt able to test the letter on site. According
to the campus police Chief Jim Dunlap, the department ordered the necessary
test kit after 9/11 but didnt receive it until Oct. 13. He said
that it took four hours to get approval to move the letter in question
to the lab. By 9 p.m. that evening they were told there were no hazardous
substances on the letter.
When he heard about the case, Henry Silverman, president of the Lansing
chapter of the ACLU, said, It just struck me right away that something
was wrong with it. Shortly after the ACLU found an attorney for
the 15 women. I think there should be clear rules that protect
peoples privacy, so that it doesnt become an unreasonable
search procedure, which I think this instance clearly was, Silverman.
The retired MSU history professor (who writes a column for City Pulse
every other week) called the incident a confusion of responsibilities.
No one knew who was in charge, he said.
Silverman said that in an emergency situation, when dealing with an
immediate crime, one might stretch peoples civil rights. But
I doubt there are as many emergencies as people think there are. The
police like to claim that everything is an emergency and therefore dont
need to go to a judge for appropriate search rights. Silverman
said the ACLU hasnt given up the idea of taking legal action.
However, with six or seven different jurisdictions involved, the case
would probably take a lot of time, energy, and money. Its
complicated, because first of all, which group would you sue?
One month after the Linton Hall case MSU promised to improve its protocol.
According to the provosts office, the MSU police and the universitys
Office of Radiation, Chemical and Biological Safety have formed a rapid
response team, to secure and investigate situations firsthand. New measures
include having a trained communicator to mediate between police and
the people involved, and a physician trained in decontamination procedures.
MSU has also bought a decontamination tent for the purpose of increasing
personal privacy. Additionally, a female technician will be assigned
to be present, and both the communicator and the physician will keep
in touch with the people involved in an incident, and will manage counseling
after its over.
Bonnie Bucqueroux, coordinator of MSUs School of Journalism Victims
and the Media Program, says Police officers are very action oriented
people, and they do not always communicate well with people, even though
it works against them. Bucqueroux says that in her training of
police officers she focuses on improving their communication skills.
When treated like humans people cooperate much better than if someone
arrogantly walks in and barks orders, she said.
In the Linton Hall incident there were just 15 people, and there was
no Anthrax, Bucqueroux reflected. She wondered what would happen if
an airliner comes into Lansing and someone had intentionally been infected.
Do we have protocols in place? Has the community had a voice in building
that plan? Would you kill one of the infected persons whos trying
to escape? Bucqueroux sorts through these tough questions in a
book project shes writing on the bio-terrorism response. Referring
to the Linton Hall incident and others, shes come to some rather
disillusioning conclusions. Were a culture that always waits
for the crisis and deals with it later. I believe these women are asking
us to confront these problems now.
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