Bioterrorism scare hits Williams

A suspicious-looking package delivered to Baxter Hall last Tuesday was feared to contain anthrax. An analysis by a lab has determined the powder posed no health threat.

A Federal Express carrier delivered the package, which was coated with an unidentifiable white powdery substance, early Tuesday morning. Its discovery prompted immediate fears that the substance might be anthrax.

According to the Williamstown Police Department (WPD) report, by 9:37 a.m. both the WPD and the Williamstown Fire Department had been informed by Williams Security of the situation and dispatched to Baxter Hall and surrounding areas.

After an initial investigation of the package, a “Tier One Hazardous Materials Response” was called in by the College.

Officials closed Baxter Hall and tested the package for hazardous substances, the Federal Express courier was located, and all persons who came in contact with the package were sequestered.

Federal Express stated its belief that the mysterious substance on the package was baking soda residue. The company said that the package came in contact with the baking soda after a spill at one of their distribution centers in Pittsfield, Mass.

However, the Haz Mat team did not want to take any chances and attempted to identify the unknown substance itself. On-site analysis proved inconclusive, so the package was transferred to the Department of Health laboratories in Jamaica Plains, Mass. Following more tests, the substance, according to the WPD, was found to be “non-toxic and tested negative for anthrax.”

The College updated students of the occurrences at Baxter Hall as they were happening. James Kolesar, director of public affairs, informed community members by e-mail that the school had received a suspicious package, and that although there was no reason to believe that it did contain a hazardous substance, Baxter Hall would be closed until Wednesday morning.

Other than the inconvenience of not being able to check mail or eat in Baxter dining hall, students were not generally fazed by the incident and continued to go about their daily lives.

Alexandre da Silva, associate director of Dining Services for Operations, said, “Our Auxiliary Services staff displayed the good will necessary to continue on with pre-cautionary building cleaning procedures and the important task of feeding our campus population as well as providing a forum for our community to debate what had happened at Baxter around their dining tables.”

Security was forced to call in extra officers to monitor the situation inside and outside of Baxter Hall. Overall, security on campus has not been heightened. And while the package proved to be harmless, Jean Thorndike, director of Security, informed students that they should be cautious in handling their mail both on and off campus. The college mailroom does not have the resources to scrutinize each package that is delivered to campus.

Dave Boyer, associate director of Security, said that Security is consulting with the United States Postal Service and the Center for Disease Control in order to improve its ability to analyze and distribute mail in a safer manner.

Throughout the incident, Security, the WPD and Federal Express collaborated with one another to ensure the safety of all parties involved.