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SBC Building’s latest anthrax scare evidences effective preparedness

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Preparation and awareness were keys to successfully handling a suspicious white substance found inside a letter received at the Southern Baptist Convention Building in Nashville, Tenn., March 26.

The letter passed through the routine first screening in a remote mail screening facility, which entails examining every piece of mail received by the building, said Jack Wilkerson, vice president for business and finance with the SBC Executive Committee. During the screening, an employee looks for letters suspicious to the visible eye, which may include handwritten addresses, no return address or personal stamps rather than machine stamps. The employee also looks for letters that are torn or show any evidence of a powder or other suspicious material.

The letter received March 26 included a typed address and a return address, so it did not cause concern in the original screening. The letter was then delivered to the appropriate office where an employee began opening it with a letter opener. When a white powder substance emerged from the envelope, the employee immediately placed both the letter and the opener in a plastic Ziploc bag provided at her desk for suspect mail according to procedure, Wilkerson said.

The employee then called the office of business and finance, which in turn notified the emergency hazardous materials team at the Nashville Metro Fire Department.

Steps were taken to isolate the suspicious substance. Employees closed the office where the letter had been opened and all fans and air circulation equipment in the building were shut down.

Within minutes, the hazardous materials team arrived. Two of the team members suited up with the proper equipment, entered the office and placed the Ziploc bag in their isolation equipment, Wilkerson said. They then monitored the office and followed decontamination procedures as a precaution. There was no evidence that any of the powder got on the employee.

The incident was turned over to the proper authorities, and lab test results on the suspicious substance are expected within three to four days.

In March 1999, the building experienced its first anthrax scare in which four SBC employees and a fire department captain underwent a decontamination wash of Clorox and water and were given antibiotics for possible exposure to the deadly anthrax bacteria. Numerous emergency officials were on the scene for more than four hours, and the building was closed the following business day. No illness was reported, and test results showed no evidence of anthrax. The perpetrator was located and brought to justice.

“We had an incident, we reviewed it in detail and we determined what procedures and training needed to be in place,” Wilkerson said. “As a result, [the most recent incident] was handled in 30 minutes.”

Wilkerson also said the Executive Committee’s current system is effective because people have been properly trained and understand the danger, and the building has a lot of eyes watching the process at every level. In addition, Wilkerson has written a letter to Nashville Metro Fire Chief thanking the department and the hazardous materials team for the way they responded to the incident.

After the most recent anthrax scare at the SBC Building, Wilkerson said he urges Southern Baptist churches and entities to examine their policies, putting in place those procedures that would ensure the absolute safety of employees who handle packages and equipment entering the buildings.

“It’s unfortunate in our day and time, but any organization that receives mail should be prepared with procedures in place for emergencies. We have extensive procedures and training in place resulting simply from our experience in 1999 that I believe minimized, if not eliminated, any danger from this incident.”

The SBC Building houses the Executive Committee, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the Historical Library and Archives, the Seminary Extension and the Southern Baptist Foundation.

In a January 2000 incident, suspicious mail also brought the FBI and Metro Nashville emergency personnel to LifeWay Christian Resources, but no trouble was found.

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  • Erin Curry