Florida Keys News - Key West Citizen
Saturday, September 28, 2013
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Envelope was not hazardous

The so-called "white powder" package scare that shut down the Gato Building on Wednesday turned out to be tea, FBI lab results found, according to the city.

Tea, as in Lipton or herbal. Or maybe English Breakfast.

On Wednesday morning, though, the white envelope that popped up in the day's mailbag at the Gato Building, 1100 Simonton St., with "The Tea Party" as a return address and a slightly lumpy feel to its contents prompted those involved to take all precautions.

The hidden substance inside felt "like granules or powder," said Jennifer George-Nichol, Florida Keys aide to U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia, D-South Fla. "Honestly, it was quite frightening."

An initial email from the city to local media described the envelope as "suspected to contain white powder," and the building that holds county government offices along with social service organizations was immediately placed on lockdown.

By Friday, all the FBI would say about the suspect letter is that it wasn't hazardous.

"At this time we are not in a position to release the context or content of the referenced envelope," said James Marshall, FBI spokesman for the Miami office, in reply to The Citizen's questions about the envelope.

Marshall would neither confirm nor deny whether the harmless stuff was tea, as city spokeswoman Alyson Crean said Thursday.

"However, as a matter of public safety, we can confirm that the content was deemed to be non-hazardous," Marshall wrote. "No further information is available right now."

The harmless goods were inside a white envelope addressed to Garcia's Key West office, which is in the Gato Building along with the county Health Department and a host of nonprofits such as the Florida Keys Healthy Start Coalition, which counsels pregnant women and helps families with newborns find services.

Key West firefighters responded about 11 a.m. Employees were sent home and told to bathe thoroughly and scrub the clothes they wore to work.

Healthy Start CEO Arianna Nesbitt said her office Wednesday morning included one pregnant employee and two pregnant clients.

"It shut down our services for the day," said Nesbitt, whose staff of three was forced to go home and work by cellphone and laptop. "Thank goodness we are such a small community. Most of our clients had someone's cellphone."

Nesbitt said her reaction was focused on clients, and though it was a disruption, "They have to take it seriously."

A hazmat team and Key West first responders handled Wednesday's scare by-the-book when it comes to disaster prevention, said Crean.

The city isn't willing to gamble with public safety.

"We followed a protocol that ensured everybody was safe, and thankfully it was," Crean said. "Everybody did what they should do when a suspicious package arrives."

The U.S. Postal Service and FBI are investigating the tea envelope as a possible threat, she added.

Similar envelopes have been mailed to elected officials across the country, said Fire Division Chief Michael Davila, who said Thursday that George-Nichol did the right thing.

It marked the third time this year a suspicious package forced the evacuation of a public building.

Garcia agreed the incident was correctly handled, whether it was a hoax or a legitimate threat.

"We will not be intimidated by these cowardly acts," Garcia said in a statement.

gfilosa@keysnews.com

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