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County gets the jitters over unknown substances

The suspected anthrax scare that for five hours shut down the Bremerton Transportation Center on Sunday, worried a region already jittery over possible bio-terrorism attacks.

In the wake of the incident, which turned out to be non-threatening, Kitsap County Emergency Management Director Phyllis Mann wants to try to ease fears many Kitsap residents could be harboring these days about their personal safety.

“There is definitely a state of concern among Kitsap residents right now,” said Mann, who, along with other emergency management officials, wants to put together a response plan to adequately deal with the increased number of calls the agency has received in recent days.

“We are getting more calls now regarding unknown substances and suspicious packages,” said Mann. “What we want individual people to start asking themselves now is why the package, magazine or envelope they received can be considered suspicious.”

Chances are, everyday citizens aren’t going to be targeted to receive the deadly bacteria, officials say. On the contrary, larger corporations and news media outlets are more at risk, if at all, they say.

That’s not to infer that the transportation center shouldn’t have been shut down for safety reasons on Sunday.

“They were absolutely right to call the authorities,” said Mann. “The powdery substance wasn’t anything they could identify and, because it was found at a transportation center, there were public safety issues to consider.”

The Washington State Patrol couldn’t agree more.

According to troopers, a transportation center visitor informed a Kitsap Transit employee at about 9 a.m. on Sunday that a white, powdery substance was discovered on the floor of the women’s bathroom at the transportation center.

Helmut Steele, a lieutenant with the state patrol, said the witness described the amount left behind as a “half cup” or “handful.”

A thorough check of the materials used in the bathroom and transportation center was conducted, after which officials determined that no other powdery substances or soaps are used in the facility.

Eventually, the building was evacuated and the ventilation system was shut down. Ferry and bus service wasn’t interrupted, however. Washington State Ferries officials were contacted and law-enforcement and safety officials were called in.

Hazardous materials teams from Bangor and the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard converged on the site shortly thereafter and the transportation center was reopened by about 2:30 p.m.

Steele said tests confirmed the substance was non-lethal. There were no reports of injury, illnesses or other health problems as a result of the incident.

The state patrol has no reason to believe the anthrax scare resulted from a hoax, said Steele, particularly because there was no note or phone calls issuing a threat. Furthermore, there were no witnesses who could describe any unusual events, he said.

“Due to the circumstances surrounding the discovery of the powder and the current state of affairs in this country, the right call was made regarding the incident,” said Steele.

Kitsap Transit employees, including drivers, have been reminded by management to keep on the lookout for mysterious packages or substances left unattended on buses.

Kitsap Transit spokeswoman Laurie Talbert confirmed that’s a longstanding policy, but drivers have been reminded again over the last couple of weeks.

“They have been informed to contact the dispatch office, which in turn, will contact 911,” said Talbert. “They have also been asked to evacuate the bus in such cases. We are on extremely high alert over here.”

While public agencies are taking extra precautions, Mann wants to allay the concerns of individual Kitsap residents. She continues to work with her staff to that end. The hope is to craft guidelines on which residents can rely in the days ahead. It is expected to be ready for release later this week.

The state patrol is encouraging anyone with any information about the unknown substance found in the transportation center bathroom, or its origin, to call the patrol’s Bremerton office at 478-4646.

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