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Suspicious leaking package found at B’nai B’rith

April 24, 1997

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Authorities cordoned off a two-block area around the international headquarters of B’nai B’rith Thursday and quarantined more than 100 workers after a suspicious, leaking package was discovered in its mailroom.

FBI spokeswoman Susan Lloyd said the package contained a red liquid in a petri dish that was emitting a foul odor. The petri dish reportedly had the word ``anthrachs″ on it _ an apparent misspelling of anthrax, the deadly bacterial disease.

The dish also bore the word, ``yersinia,″ which is the bacterium that causes Bubonic plague. Initial tests on the material, however, turned up no evidence of a serious contaminant.

``We have this container that looks like a petri dish (with) a couple of scientific terms on it.... It could be strawberry jello, it could be beef bouillon; so we don’t know at this point.″ Lloyd said.

At least one man complaining of dizziness was taken to George Washington University Hospital.

Barry Simon, the hospital’s chief of infectious diseases, said field tests on the material showed it was not anthrax.

Fourteen others, including a dozen emergency personnel, were hosed down at the site with a water and chlorine solution to decontaminate them, authorities said.

Officials said 108 people who were working in the building of the Jewish service organization were being quarantined while tests are completed on the suspicious material.

A B’nai B’rith employee, Dan Joseph, said those in the building included as many as five children, ages 5 to 13, who had accompanied their parents on a day when parents were encouraged to bring school-age children to work with them.

``Everyone is okay,″ Joseph said. ``Everyone is a little anxious but calm. Everyone is holding up pretty well.″

Hazardous materials teams from the FBI and the fire department cordoned off the building. After several hours, a convoy of FBI and police vehicles took the package to the nearby Bethesda Naval Research Facility in suburban Maryland for testing and analysis.

Federal law enforcement officials said the petri dish was accompanied by a two-page typed letter. It was hard to tell whether the signature was of one person or a group, but it was not a name known to the FBI, they said.

One FBI agent said the letter claimed responsibility for the petri dish and contained ``a lot of scribbling,″ not all of which was coherent.

B’nai B’rith spokeswoman Robin Schwartz-Kreger said two workers who had handled the package initially complained of respiratory problems. They were decontaminated at the scene.

Ori Soltes, director of the National Jewish Museum, which is housed in the building, said he talked to workers inside and was told that a man in the mail room picked up a package oozing with a mysterious substance.

The B’nai B’rith headquarters has heavy security and routinely screens packages coming into its mailroom. In 1977 it was one of three buildings seized by a dozen Hanafi Muslim gunmen who took more than 100 hostages. A radio reporter was killed at city hall in the initial takeover, but the captors released their hostages after 38 hours. The gunmen said they were avenging the murders of seven members of the sect in 1973 in the nation’s capital.

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