Terror fears hit Truckee
October 18, 2001
The anthrax scare that has swept across the nation hasn’t missed Truckee and Tahoe.
On Sunday, a mysterious powder was discovered in the Rite-Aid in the Gateway Center on Donner Pass Road, closing the drugstore for over five hours.
Truckee Police, the hazardous material team from Placer County, Truckee Fire and Nevada County Environmental Health responded to the incident, sealing off the building and checking 10 customers and employees for possible exposure to dangerous materials.
“This could have been as simple as somebody spilling some talcum powder,” said Truckee Fire District Safety Officer Gene Welch. “And all of these steps had to be followed because of the current conditions.”
Welch said the substance appeared suspicious because there was no container lying near the spill and that the substance appeared to have been thrown. The powder was examined on the scene and was determined not to be a health risk.
“We can’t always identify what the product is; many times we can identify what it isn’t,” said Truckee Fire District public information officer Chuck Thomas, adding that haz-mat teams can’t identify biological components like anthrax. “There are only a handful of haz-mat teams in America that have that level of equipment and they’d be a federal team.”
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Cmdr. Scott Berry of Truckee Police said Nevada County Environmental Health officials onsite and FBI agents by phone helped determine that the substance at Rite-Aid was unlikely to be dangerous.
The scare over anthrax continued on Monday when two Ward Valley residents found mail they picked up from their post office box covered in powder.
Shortly after, the haz-mat teams visited the home and Placer County Sheriff’s Office closed down the Olympic Valley Post Office.
The Ward Valley incident and the incident at Rite-Aid are undoubtedly sparked by national attention to cases of anthrax discovered in Florida, New York and nearby Reno.
“Thirty days ago they would have just swept that up (at Rite-Aid) and never questioned it,” Welch said, adding that people should own up to spills they make in stores or on roadsides. “If that had been somebody that just accidentally spilled something, if they had told the manager, it would have saved all of us as taxpayers. It would have saved us all a lot of grief.”
“I wouldn’t call it an over-reaction, I’d call it acting on the side of caution because who’s to say it’s not (a dangerous spill),” Berry said. “And not one of the firemen or one of the police officers are going to go in and say it’s nothing, just clean it up. We’re not going to take that liability.”
Tahoe Forest Hospital isn’t taking any liabilities either.
“It’s kind of sad,” said Teri Smith, TFH spokesperson. “We don’t know if they’re hoaxes or not.”
TFH’s Infectious Control Center was contacted during the Rite-Aid incident, but nobody was hospitalized, Smith said. “It is my understanding that we have not had any patients in the hospital, whether they believe they were or actually were (infected).”
Smith said the hospital is prepared to treat anthrax if cases arise and is prepared for more serious events. Every hospital in California, she said, has an emergency preparedness plan that is routinely drilled. In the event of an emergency, Smith said TFH would enact its Hospital Emergency Incident Command System.
“It is so detailed it has what your assigned duties are in a checklist – what needs to be done immediately, what needs to be done in the intermediate and what needs to be done on an extended level,” she said. Labor is divided into tasks like administration, information and finance.
The hospital’s pharmacy is also stocked with antibiotics used to fight anthrax.
“Yes, we would have Cipro,” Smith said. “That’s an everyday medication we would have on stock for urinary tract infections.”
However, people who believe they are contaminated with anthrax shouldn’t go to the hospital first.
“We basically have the same procedures as the fire departments have,” Smith said. “If they suspect they’ve been contaminated, they need to go home and take a shower.”
Blood tests taken from people suspected of being contaminated with anthrax are sent to Sacramento County Public Health Lab, part of the California Laboratory Response Network, which has “procedures in place to rapidly confirm or rule out high-risk bacterial agents,” Smith said.
According to the Sierra Sacramento Emergency Medical Service, people who come in contact with suspicious white powder should cut their shirt off, because pulling a shirt overhead increases the chance of inhaling. Then, they should triple-bag their clothes, knotting each bag. Then they should take a shower and wash with soap. Finally, they should call law enforcement.
Besides the incidents at Rite-Aid and Ward Valley, suspicious packages were reported recently at the Truckee Post Office and along Interstate 80.
On Oct. 8, a woman reported a strange package “left on the counter at a strange angle” at the downtown post office, according to police reports. The package was identified by police and delivered to its owner in Tahoe Donner. A few days later, a trucker reported a suspicious ice chest left at the eastbound rest area on Interstate 80. Officers didn’t find the ice chest when they arrived.
“The people who receive these packages, they know better than us,” Berry said. “If they call us and they think it’s suspicious we will respond.”
Berry said the police would likely destroy packages rather than open them.
In the weeks following Sept. 11, citizens and agencies have reacted to anything seemingly out of the ordinary, and in some cases with prejudice.
Around 7 p.m. on Sept. 11, Jean Agoni was at work at his Texaco gas station on Donner Pass Road when the phone rang. The voice on the other end of the receiver was anything but friendly.
“He said something like, ‘you better close early or something bad will happen,'” Agoni said.
The caller was a “young kid,” Agoni said, who called to vent frustration over the terrorist attacks and thought the Texaco owner had something to do with it because the previous owners of the service station were from Pakistan. Agoni is of Asian decent.
Agoni said the incident “wasn’t a big deal” and doesn’t feel threatened in what he describes a “friendly community.”
Nicole Willett, co-owner of Truckee Coffee Roasters, reported receiving a strange fax a few days before Sept. 11. Willett said the name on the fax, a request for the Willetts to hold $70 million in their bank account on behalf of a children’s charity, was Muhammed.
“We threw it away because we thought whatever. We just thought it was a scam,” she said. But after seeing a Muhammed’s name listed as a possible terrorist in the news, she said she “started freaking out” and reported the incident to the police.
Willett admits that she could be over-reacting, but doesn’t want to hold back the possibility that the fax was from terrorists.
“If it was nothing, no big deal, then great,” she said. “But I’d rather know for sure.”
On Sept. 16, a countywide bulletin went out to local law enforcement stating that the FBI was interested in locating two subjects identifying themselves as “Israeli or Russian art students” who were selling oil paintings door-to-door, according to Truckee Police Department logs.
Two days later, a bulletin from the Placer County Sheriff’s Office reported “several male subjects described as Middle Eastern have been going door-to-door attempting to sell unknown items to the public.”
“At that time (the FBI) wanted to know any contacts or suspicious activities involving anybody,” Berry said, adding that the bulletin was related to the attacks in New York and Washington. Selling door-to-door is not illegal in Tahoe, Berry said, but their behaviors were suspicious because the subjects were “Mid-Eastern.”
“I would not call that racial profiling,” he said. “I would call that awareness.”
On Oct. 11, one month after the attacks, Tom Hiatt reported to the Sierra Sun that he saw planes flying over his house on Juniper Creek with “very bizarre behavior.” A twin engine “bomber-type” plane circled his home, he said, before a private jet flew right up to it. The two planes “looped” around Truckee before another private jet joined the first and they left the twin engine and flew off east together, he said.
Another caller to the Sun claimed that chemical weapons had been allowed to pass through the agricultural check on Interstate 80. Follow-ups to the caller were unanswered and law enforcement records showed no such incident occurred.
Despite the number of false alarms, Berry still encourages people to contact police about anything suspicious.
“I would say err on the side of caution, don’t hesitate to call us,” he said.
Tahoe World writer Charles
Levinson contributed to this report.