The Crime Blotter

NYPD Hammers At East Siders’ Fears

While the federal government was a bit slow to accept the seriousness of the anthrax threat, Upper East Siders-from Park Avenue matrons to the folks at Polo by Ralph Lauren, and also including this reporter’s spouse-have been, almost from the first case, playing it safe … maybe even too safe, if such a thing is possible during such precarious times.

In one of these incidents, at approximately 1 p.m. on Oct. 12, the police responded to a report of a suspicious letter at a Park Avenue address. The resident described herself to the cops as an employee of “the owners of The New York Times ,” which might justifiably give one cause for concern these days. However, upon inspection, the package was found to contain nothing more lethal than the student directory from her child’s school.

“It was determined other parents had also received this directory,” the police report stated with exquisite delicacy. “However, complainant felt there was an unknown substance on this letter which was not readily apparent to the responding officers.”

So the police duly summoned the Emergency Service Unit, which secured the booklet and removed it to a lab for testing.

The following day, the cops responded to a report of a suspicious white powder in the Palestinian Mission on East 65th Street. The powder had been discovered near a steam pipe-not by a member of the mission staff, but by a Con Ed employee working in the basement.

“We’re cops; we’re not plumbers,” explained an officer who responded to the scene. “When [the Con Ed employee] told me he’d never seen this stuff before, I thought, ‘Oh, shit!'”

A “Hammer” team (short for “Hazardous Material Emergency Response”) composed of specially trained cops and firefighters arrived shortly thereafter and deemed the white powder “non-suspicious”; it turned out to be insulation from the steam pipe.

On Oct. 19, the Iraqi Mission to the U.N. reported receiving a suspicious envelope containing white powder. The letter, which helpfully included a return address from a West 57th Street cleaning company, was opened by one of the mission’s security officers. Both a Hammer team and an Emergency Service Unit responded and removed the letter, which was transported to a Department of Health lab. The police also tried to clear the building, but the Iraqis-perhaps more fatalistic than the average Manhattanite-refused to leave.

Other suspicious pieces of mail whisked off for examination by the Department of Health included a letter received at Polo by Ralph Lauren on Oct. 18. Postmarked Arizona, the envelope stated on its back, “Wake up call.” It also got a free ride to a Department of Health lab.

New York Hospital reported admitting a woman on Oct. 20 who complained of finding white powder in an issue of W magazine. The victim, a Sutton Place resident, said that the publication, addressed to a friend, was sheathed in a plastic mailing wrapper. However, she was described as being uncooperative about providing any more information. The parcel was removed by a Hammer team and taken to a Department of Health lab.

Another Park Avenue resident, a retired 87-year-old widow, got a scare on Oct. 18 when she received a letter, delivered by her doorman and said to contain white powder, from an organization identifying itself as the “Hospice Education Institute,” based in Machiasport, Me. Hammer team No. 3-there are apparently six of them, spread thin among the five boroughs-responded and dutifully removed the missive to that Department of Health lab.

Finally, this reporter returned home on the afternoon of Oct. 22 to find his normally well-adjusted wife in something of a panic. That day’s mail had included a suspicious envelope from North Africa that smelled of talcum powder. The address was written in juvenile block letters, similar to those on the anthrax letters sent to Senator Tom Daschle and NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw.

My spouse’s suspicions were first aroused on the elevator in our apartment building as she returned with the mail. “Two little boys smelled it and moved away and said, ‘Don’t get that near me,'” she reported.

Upon entering our apartment, my spouse promptly double-baggied the suspicious letter and put it in the hall closet in case I wanted to inspect it. (She wasn’t getting anywhere near it.) She’d also placed the rest of our mail in a separate plastic bag in case it had been contaminated.

I courageously-or foolishly, depending on your state of mind at the moment-approached the closet and opened the plastic bags, potentially exposing myself to lethal anthrax spores. The letter, I’m relieved to report, came not from Africa-though I’m not sure what disposes correspondence from that continent to be more dangerous than mail from anywhere else, except, perhaps, its novelty-but from Norway. My spouse’s confusion apparently arose from observing a picture of a black man on the stamp (he turned out to be Martin Luther King) and mistaking the letters “NOR” on the envelope as an abbreviation for “North Africa” instead of “Norway,” even though the stamp was clearly marked “Norge.”

The letter was addressed to my 13-year-old daughter and came from her Norwegian pen pal. It contained a pair of earrings for her birthday and a note written on lavender-scented stationary. We decided not to call in a Hammer team.

The Crime Blotter