False alarm unnerves Lincoln Park
Bioterror scare turns out to be harmless powder
By Matthew Walberg, Liam Ford and David Heinzmann, Tribune staff reporters
Published December 25, 2002
Christmas Eve and there’s white powder scattered on the ground across Lincoln Park–a quintessentially beautiful Chicago scene.
Unless the powder isn’t snow and no one knows what it is for nearly four hours. Then it’s a potential disaster that evacuates the Lincoln Park Zoo and Conservatory and shuts down a grid of North Side streets, sending emergency crews into overdrive and wreaking havoc on some last-minute shopping efforts.
The piles of white powder that Chicago Park District workers found Tuesday morning turned out to be a harmless mixture of chalk and flour intended to mark running lanes for a foot race that took place in Lincoln Park on Sunday.
But from a little after 9 a.m. to a little before 1 p.m., fire, police and hazardous materials crews treated the powder as if it might be a bioterrorism threat.
When it was over, city officials took a better-safe-than-sorry view of the false alarm.
“We prepare for the worst and hope for the best,” Fire Department spokesman Dennis Gault said.
Trouble began when a Park District employee doing some maintenance discovered a number of white powdery marks on the ground and called police, Fire Commissioner James Joyce said in an afternoon news conference near the zoo.
The substance was scattered in spots in a three- to four-block area within Lincoln Park.
More than 100 firefighters responded during the incident, which was raised from a Level 2 hazardous materials call to a Level 3 when the Fire Department’s new testing equipment at first indicated the powder might contain a dangerous substance, Joyce said.
“We got a series of false positives,” Joyce said.
Gault said later that the equipment worked properly, indicating materials present in the powder that could have been dangerous but not in the state or mixture used. He said he did not know what those materials were.
A wide range of substances will alert the testing equipment, Gault said.
“Things that normally occur in nature also can be used for negative purposes,” he said.
Under closer scrutiny from fire, Health Department and Environmental Protection Agency technicians, the substances were determined to be harmless, Gault said.
When officials learned a foot race had been held, they contacted the head of the running club, who said his group had used the powder to mark arrows to direct runners through the park.
The club leader walked the entire course with emergency workers to confirm the scattered patches of powder were their markings, which had been smudged and withered by winds.
Authorities believe “it’s a completely inert substance,” Joyce said.
In addition to firefighters, dozens of police officers in squad cars, on foot and on horseback fanned out across the southwest end of Lincoln Park. Yellow police tape surrounded the entire northwest corner of the zoo at one point.
Pedestrian and vehicle traffic could not get east of Clark or west of Lake Shore Drive, and police kept people from going south of Diversey Parkway and north of North Avenue.
“It scared the hell out of me,” said Marian Altersohn, 83, of the 2100 block of North Lincoln Park West. “My apartment faces that area, and it started quite early. I wondered why the Fire Department was there. Then I saw all the police cars and I thought, `Jeez, this is getting pretty bad.’ I didn’t know what it was all about.”
When Altersohn left her apartment around 11 a.m. to have her hair done, “no one knew what was going on and we were free to leave,” she said. “But I did hear that later, people were not allowed to go back into their homes. Someone came into the beauty parlor and said, `I can’t go home. They won’t let me in.’ I just went to a restaurant and had coffee and made it last as long as I could. I didn’t want to go home.”
Bernice Bork, who lives in the same complex, said she heard at first that the commotion was about a suspicious package in her building.
“I stayed in, I didn’t go down because … I was hesitant about using the elevator,” she said. “I didn’t know if I’d be heading for trouble or away from trouble because at that point I still thought it was a package in the building.
“I would appreciate if the [media were] a little more accurate, that they would wait to get it right before scaring the hell out of people. I’m just glad it turned out well.”
About 25 conservatory visitors and seven or eight staff members were sent home when authorities responded, and most Zoo employees also were sent home.
By about 1:30 p.m., both the zoo and the conservatory were reopening, though zoo buildings were kept closed because most staff had already gone home, said Kelly McGrath, a spokeswoman for the zoo.
Despite the outcome, Joyce said fire and police officials were better off for the experience.
Emergency crews and police officers were able to practice responding to such incidents and got to use the equipment for the purpose it was intended.
“We’re satisfied with the results,” Joyce said. “We do what we have to to protect the citizens.”
Copyright © 2002, Chicago Tribune