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March 07, 2004

"We're from the government. We're here to help."

I'm alive.

That may not seem like big news but after today those words actually mean a bit more.

This was going to be a typical Saturday for the two of us. Fabulous Babe went to the gym and I was going to run some errands. We would meet back up at the house and then go shopping for some warm weather clothes for FB for her surprise in a couple of weeks. One of the things that I had to do today was mail a package to an Ebay customer.

Our Post Office is pretty typical of small town America. It's an institution where the staff get to meet and interact with everyone that is a part of our community. One of the women that works there at the counter lives on my street. (She became a grandmother last month.) Another decided last summer that I looked like Barbie's now jilted boyfriend Ken and decided to always call me Ken from that moment on. (I now call her Barbie in turn.) A third helped me when I was sending school supplies to Iraqi schools a few months ago. They live in my town and I live in theirs. We're neighbors even though we may not live on each others streets.

I walked into our Post Office today and the usual Saturday line was 5 deep. Peeking through the glass I saw two of the regulars were manning the counter. It looked like things would move at the usual brisk pace so I walked into the doorway that leads to the counter area. (5 women were ahead of me.)

Right off the bat I noticed the women behind the counter were coughing and sneezing. Barbie was rubbing her eyes. A couple of other women in line were coughing as well. Thinking it was odd I said "You're all sick! I'm not sure I want to be in this line." I got a few chuckles and took my place in the que.

One of the women in line turned and said "It only started when I came in here." Another agreed and said her throat was burning. Another woman in line began coughing. The next person in line walked up to Barbie?s counter. I walked through the door and into line.

I remember thinking that I felt fine and that I was glad I wasn't sick. I also remember wondering what it was that had the other people coughing. Then I took a breath and instantly knew.

The best way I can describe it is like my throat and lungs were instantly irritated. It was like standing next to someone who wears too much perfume or that awful microwave popcorn butter effect that causes the air to burn when you breathe. I instantly ?tasted? a burning scent. My eyes started to water and my throat felt like it was raw and "on fire". Everyone in line was now coughing.

I looked straight at Barbie who was looking at me. I think I said something like "There's something in the air" but my expression must have been enough. She said "I'm calling _______ our supervisor. We're closing. Get everyone out" and dove for the phone.

I turned around and told the people behind me that they were closing the Post Office. I got a mix of questions but by that point the women in front of me were now running out as fast as they could. A young woman with a small child ran past me saying "Something is causing us to choke!" and that cleared the place instantly.

I stood in the doorway holding the door open for air while another woman from line was telling people the office was closed. Barbie and the other woman behind the counter were trying to secure everything while coughing. As they got out they ran to the door and we closed it behind us.

We stood outside the doors for a few minutes getting fresh air and turning people away. A few minutes later the first of our local police cruisers showed up and blocked off the entrance to parking lot. The police asked us to get in our separate vehicles and wait while they checked things out.

My first interview was with an officer of our local police department. We went through what happened. What I saw. Who I was and what I was doing there. He asked for my symptoms and wanted to know how I was feeling. (My throat and lungs were still burning.) After the questions he asked me to sit tight.

At this point I started making a few phone calls. FB?s parents were first up. I explained that I didn't know what had happened but that I would update them. My Dad, who served in the Army Medical Corps, was next on the list: "Dad. I hope you've had your first cup of coffee. I need you sharp."

I walked through what had happened. We both agreed if it was serious stuff the odds were I wouldn't have made it out. (Comforting isn't it?) Most of the deadly nerve agents like sarin or ricin are pretty effective if manufactured correctly. We were also of the same mind that sticking around was probably the best thing.

I sat in my car far for a while longer. Soon a Postal Inspector arrived and began asking some questions. A fire truck arrived with an ambulance in tow. I spoke to my friend the Astronomer and we made some nervous jokes. He asked if I was hearing circus calliope music yet and I said it was working up to that. The burning in my throat and lungs hadn't stopped but it wasn't getting worse. I remarked that if I was smart I would have left when everyone else did. (Everyone else from the lobby had driven off.) He reminded me that by sticking around they wouldn?t have to track me down. I finally got a hold of FB, explained the situation and told her not to worry. (Ha.)

The police officer who had interviewed me came over. He asked if I wanted to go to the hospital for my symptoms and I said that I didn?t think that was necessary. He then said I could go home and wait there, that they had been in the building and they didn?t think it was anything serious. Puzzled but relieved I started to drive home.

Sure enough I was almost home and my cell rang. The police officer asked me to turn around and NOT go home. "Don't come in direct contact with your wife. She's pregnant right?"

I turned around.

I got back and was asked to park and wait. About then is when the circus music started.

In the 5 minutes I had been gone hazard tape had gone up. The local Police Department was no longer in charge. New guys were on the scene wearing orange vests with "Incident Commander" and "Safety Officer" on them. More police had arrived and were blocking the street. More fire equipment as well. I sat and waited. A truck near me now had a whiteboard that detailed the raw numbers and names. It was unnerving to see my own name in red ink with my symptoms.

After waiting for another hour I had an interview with the postal inspector. It was mostly a rehash of what I had answered before. Our interview was cut short by the next batch of arrivals: The Minnesota National Guard response team had arrived.

There are a lot of accusations of pork spending with our Department of Homeland Defense. You read the stories in magazines and newspapers about small towns getting their more than fair share of funding and equipment. As a taxpayer I now had an unnerving view of my tax dollars at work. An appreciative view that didn't fault anything they spent. Quite the contrary. I now have a much greater appreciation for Tom Ridge, the work he's accomplished so far and the work ahead of him.

Three huge trucks pulling massive trailers pulled into the lot. The man in charge, still in the jeans he had been wearing on his day off, quickly called a huddle among the current "leaders" that were already there. As trailers opened and equipment cases began hitting the pavement I settled in for a longer wait. The local police were now being assisted by a lot of Guard in full uniform. It was an interesting mix of uniforms and civilian attire as the entry team began donning their Class A environment suits. (The airtight suits with their own oxygen supplies.) In a surreal fashion I watched them erect a decontamination shower that I prayed I wasn?t going to have an appointment with.

I had a couple of people compliment me on holding the door and waiting for the postal workers when everyone else ran. I know it?s a survival instinct but isn?t the whole thing supposed to be about our standing together?

The police had now tracked down all but one of the people who had been in the Post Office when things had hit the fan. All of our throats and lungs were getting better but one woman was sitting in an ambulance. The inspector came by to tell us that the team was going in soon and that the results wouldn?t take much time. He felt certain that we would be fine.

The Postal Employee Union Reps were standing with us and remarked that the last time a postal inspector said everything was ?ok? two people had died.

We saw two TV news cameras earlier shooting footage of the building. The local amateur hour cable access buffoon now arrived and began bumping cars with his tripod trying to find a good shot. At one point he focused on us as a group looking for a ?victim? shot. I turned around and gave him some demonstrative sign language that caused him to quickly focus his efforts somewhere else. The local police officer I had first talked to remarked that the buffoon WAS an idiot and applauded my effort. It was the first real laugh of the afternoon.

Fabulous Babe's friend, Mrs. Lost Control, had come over to sit with her while all of this was going on. Thank God for good friends.

The team went in and took the samples. It was another long 45 minutes before the results and finally they called us into a huddle to reveal the results. At this point the mayor, a delightful older woman, was walking around the lot hugging people.

The odds are it was CS gas of some kind. (Good call dad.) Pepper spray or Mace that had gone off accidentally. (No one called it in so they don't think it was malicious.) If it was in someone's purse and went off it would have released as a cloud and affected the group the way it did. We may never know what really happened. We were all just sort of got "lucky" if you want to call it that. Teenagers had pulled a similar stunt over the summer but had been kind enough to call to "take claim" of the event.

I'm leaving some stuff out that they asked us not to talk about and a few of the people who wanted to remain out of the "spotlight" due to what they do. (I do have a lot of interesting business cards now.) The last thing these people need is my making their life difficult.

I got home after almost 5 hours. I walked in and hugged my wife. I thanked her childhood friend and then tried to let all the tension melt away. I showered and kept trying to put those horrible ?what if?s? in the back of my mind.

FB is asleep now but I'm wide awake.

I don't think I'm going to sleep any time soon.

Posted by Jim at March 7, 2004 12:13 AM


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