A memory from twenty or so years ago.
“I’m going to grab my laptop and head out in a few minutes,” I shouted to Rowena. I always said goodbye to her, the languages department secretary at Cochise College, Douglas Campus.
“No you’re not. Come look at this.”
I headed into the office next to mine. Sitting on Rowena’s desk was an open box, a white powder sprinkled around it on her desk, her lap, even on her face.
“What in the world?”
“I don’t know, but I called Security. We’re not supposed to leave the building.”
It was the height of the anthrax scare, spring 2002, and the deadly poison had been sent to Democratic Senators as well as others, killing several and infecting many. Although this white powder we’d received wasn’t the same as the more coarse, tannish anthrax, it was still considered suspicious and had to be investigated.
We watched out the windows as campus Security joined Douglas policemen to string yellow Crime Scene – Do Not Cross tape around the building. Six of us were confined until … well, we didn’t know until when.
Until whatever happened next.
It wasn’t long. Within a few minutes, a Security officer opened the outside door and called into us to come board the van. We’d be driven across campus to the gym, enter through a back door, and head to the showers where soaps and shampoos awaited us.
As we walked out, we saw a small crowd of campus staff and teachers, held a good distance away. Many were in tears.
They’d been told nothing, but seeing the tape they’d assumed someone had been murdered. They shouted to us as we went to the van. What happened? Was someone killed? Who is it?
We shouted back that no, no one had been killed, but Rowena had opened a box filled with a white powder, and the entire building might be contaminated.
We climbed into the van. The driver was the campus Dean, Chuck Hoyack. He’d volunteered to drive us.
I told Chuck I needed my computer. I’d spent days preparing a PowerPoint slideshow on my office computer. I’d transferred the presentation to my laptop and I was ready to leave.
In the morning, four of us were due to drive to Las Vegas to present at a conference. I had to have that laptop!
Chuck told me I couldn’t have it, that no one could go into the building. He dropped us off at the back door to the gym, and we filed out, me still insisting I had to have the laptop.
In the shower room, a woman gave us clipped instructions.
Strip. Put clothing into a bag.
Seal the bag. Write your names on the sticker on the bag with the pen provided.
Shower and scrub from head to toe. Do it again.
And no, there was no lotion.
We were to put on white jumpsuits and plastic flip-flops afterwards. The outfit, other than the flip-flops, looked like something a scientist would wear to avoid contamination.
We all scrubbed twice, toweled off, and stepped into our white one-size-fits-no-one jumpsuits and flip-flops. We walked across the drive to the administrative building and someone told us to wait until called, that we’d have to give our story.
Questioning went pretty quickly. I think there must have been two interrogators. And they weren’t cops.
When I sat, an obviously government guy flashed his credentials and introduced himself. His badge read “FBI”.
FBI? I was immediately puzzled at their arriving so quickly. Rowena had made the call maybe thirty minutes, max, before they’d arrived on campus.
Where in the world were these guys stationed? They couldn’t even have flown in from Tucson so quickly. Sierra Vista? Maybe Bisbee!
I regret I didn’t ask.
I don’t recall the questions or my answers, but do I know I told him I hadn’t witnessed Rowena opening the box, that I’d only walked into the building to gather my things to leave.
I was out of the interview in under ten minutes.
The woman who’d given us instructions in the shower room gave us receipts for our bagged clothes. She said we’d get the clothing back once the investigation was complete and/or the clothing deemed safe.
She cautioned us to go to an emergency room if we had any strange reactions. I assumed she meant other than my raw dry skin that was already itchy.
Or is that a reaction??!! No. I know how itchy my skin is when it’s dry.
She then said told us to leave.
By this time, I knew I was really late leaving. I’d been pretty late before the fiasco began. So I took a moment to call home and let my then-husband know I’d been delayed and had quite a story to share when I got home.
I don’t recall how I got my purse. I must have, though, because my keys had been in it and I know I drove home. Plus, I had ID and such when we got to Vegas.
Then, as I left, a little bonus: Chuck handed me my laptop bag and told me NOT to tell anyone he’d gone in. He then headed off to the showers to double scrub.
And that was the end of it. No one ever told us what the white powder was, only that it wasn’t dangerous. They never told us if they’d tracked down the person who’d sent the box. We did get our clothing back a few months later, however. And the Vegas trip and presentation were a success.