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Mercyhurst awaits anthrax test results

Most think 'anthrax' note a hoax, but remain jittery

Thursday, November 01, 2001

By Milan Simonich, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

ERIE -- More than 400 students and employees at Mercyhurst College may know by late today whether they were victims of anthrax exposure or a sinister hoax.

Mercyhurst College's Old Main had to be closed Tuesday night after the college's Admissions Office received a letter that contained a threat and white powdery substance. (Gabor Degre, Post-Gazette)

The idyllic Catholic college was one big bundle of nerves yesterday as the FBI tested a powder-laced letter that was mailed to the admissions office. Enclosed with the substance was a menacing, handwritten note that said Mercyhurst had just been hit by deadly anthrax.

So Halloween became a day not for jokes but of fear, about whether terrorists had contaminated much of the student body.

"There's an underlying paranoia, even though most people think the chances are good that this is a hoax," said Andrew Ericson, a junior archeology major from Parker, Colo.

The mysterious powder, discovered about 11:15 a.m. Tuesday, was being analyzed at a state Health Department lab in the Philadelphia area. Bob Rudge, director of the FBI's Erie office, said investigators should know by this evening or tomorrow morning if the powder was anthrax.

  Dickinson senior charged with mail threats

Mercyhurst wasn't the only Pennsylvania college forced by an anthrax threat to shut down a part of its campus.

In Carlisle, a pair of letters containing powder and a threatening message were found in the student mail center on the campus of Dickinson College, the school said yesterday. The discovery prompted officials to close the Holland Union Building as a precaution while the FBI and local police investigated.

Late yesterday, authorities announced the arrest of a senior at the college.

Andrew J. Theodorakis, 21, Stonybrook, N.Y., was charged with six counts of simple assault, fear of bodily injury by physical menace, two counts of terroristic threats, one count of causing a catastrophe and one count of risking a catastrophe, said Heidi Hormel, a campus spokeswoman.

He was jailed on $250,000 bail after being arraigned before District Justice Susan Day.


"Keep in mind that there have been 7,000 similar situations nationwide" since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Rudge said. "Everything has tested negative except for a handful of cases."

He said the FBI was operating under the assumption that the Mercyhurst letter, bearing an Egyptian postmark, was a callous sham, not a health threat to the 75-year-old school started by the Sisters of Mercy.

Even so, administrators at the college of 2,800 students took nothing for granted.

They believe some 460 people could have been exposed to the powder in a half-hour span. Everyone who walked through the east-west corridor of Old Main, where the threatening letter was opened, was rounded up to be tested.

They stood in line for up to nine hours for treatment that did not end until 1 a.m. yesterday. Nurses from Hamot Medical Center came to campus to spare students a trip to the hospital.

Those who might have been exposed to the powder were bused to the college's athletic center. There they were stripped of their clothes, books, backpacks and cellphones, all of which were confiscated. Then they showered, dressed in white jumpsuits and underwent nasal swabs.

Erie pharmacies stayed open deep into the night so students could pick up prescriptions of the antibiotic Cipro. Most were taking the medicine as a precaution.

Classes in Old Main, the heart of the campus, were canceled yesterday, and college mail delivery was halted. Otherwise, Mercyhurst students and professors tried to make the best of their strange circumstances.

Even with such disruptions, few at Mercyhurst cut their classes.

Larry Gauriloff, an associate professor of biology, said he had doubted that many of the 28 students in his 8 a.m. course would show up yesterday. He was pleased when about 20 arrived, right on time. They peppered him with questions about anthrax for the first 15 minutes, then tried to dive into the course work.

"A little shaky," he said of the day. "There's some concern, but people seem to be getting on with their lives."

College President William Garvey said he was proud of his students for their resilience and good nature.

During an afternoon news conference attended by about 50 students, Garvey said Mercyhurst was developing a course of action on its next steps if the powder is anthrax. He pledged that the college would forge on, unbowed by terrorists.

The powder-filled letter had a postmark indicating it originated in Egypt. College administrators, though, were quick to point out that computer trickery could have been used to concoct such a marking.

All across Erie, people debated yesterday over why anybody would pick Mercyhurst as a college to terrorize.

Two theories emerged.

One is that former Gov. Tom Ridge, now director of homeland security, calls Erie his hometown.

The other is that Mercyhurst offers a unique program to prepare students for work as intelligence and research analysts. On campus, many refer to it as "spy school" and joke that it is a training ground for the CIA.

Mercyhurst's Research/Intelligence Analyst Program is run by Robert J. Heibel, a retired FBI special agent. He has been quoted extensively on terrorism since the Sept. 11 attacks.

A Mercyhurst student who graduates with a degree in intelligence gathering is more likely to go to work for a corporation than for a secretive government agency. Nonetheless, the program's high profile has created a rumor mill that it may have made the college vulnerable to terrorists.

For now, though, the prevailing mood at Mercyhurst is one of hope. Students, staff and faculty say they are betting that the powder is harmless.

"I hope, everybody hopes, it was a hoax -- a bad hoax," said Stephen Zinram, a director in the college's fund-raising program.

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