Westward Hoaxes

Denver officials and the press grope for the best way to deal with bogus anthrax scares.

On a sparkling fall morning, the grand entrance of Denver's City Hall is festooned with giant ribbons commemorating breast cancer awareness month and hung with a banner reading "Denver Celebrates Diversity." But visitors wanting a closer look at this display are out of luck, because the entire area is isolated behind a chain-link fence whose signage directs them to a nondescript side door decorated only with a sheet of paper warning homeless people not to bed down in front of it.

Inside is an inspection station staffed by two guards who take their tasks seriously. They X-ray the satchel of a man in front of me, confiscating a small, forgotten pocket knife (they promise to return the blade when he leaves), ask him to remove a Western-style belt with decorative silver accoutrements for closer examination (happily, his pants stay up), and scan him with a hand-wand magnetometer before letting him go on his way. Shortly thereafter, they make a young mother remove her three-month-old from her stroller, which they thoroughly scrutinize prior to deciding that the extra diapers it holds could prevent more disasters than they cause. Then, upon finally getting to me, they become extremely interested in my ancient key ring, which is connected to a three-inch-long transparent plastic tube containing confetti-like beads and musical notes that float in a light-amber fluid. I try to reassure the head guard by revealing that the tube is a "Where's Elvis?" novelty, but he seems dubious, especially after being unable to find the tiny Elvis Presley floating within. If he hadn't located the King's pink Cadillac, I might be standing there still.

Eventually, though, I'm directed to a conference room in the bowels of the building, where city representatives and local media types are gathering to discuss a similar security matter that's cropped up in the wake of the September 11 terrorist strikes -- bio-terrorism, be it real or, in the case of my far-from-lethal key chain, imagined.

The meeting isn't top secret, but it does have rules. First, no cameras; according to Andrew Hudson, spokesman for Mayor Wellington Webb, who organized the get-together, it's for "planning purposes only." Second, only public servants may be quoted by name, apparently because the journalists present might not speak candidly if they know any comments they offer could later appear in print with their monikers attached in bold letters.

Thus reassured, the press turns out in big numbers, with folks from virtually every major newspaper and TV outlet eager to chat with many of the city's mouthpieces and powerhouses -- not just Hudson, but Ed Connors, director of Denver's Office of Emergency Management; David Sullivan, the office's deputy director; C.L. Harmer, spokeswoman for the Manager of Safety's office; Keith Mehrens, assistant chief for community services with the Denver Fire Department; Theresa Donahue, manager of Denver's Department of Environmental Health; Sara Spaulding, director of public relations for Denver Health Medical Center; and plenty more.

Just before the festivities, members of both groups descend on a deli spread notably lacking in suspicious-looking condiments or powdery seasoning -- appropriate considering that the October 12 closure of a post office in Parker was spurred by the discovery of a granular material subsequently discovered to be a pudding mix. The Parker incident, which was covered live by assorted Denver TV outlets and made news reports across the country (particularly after the substance was revealed to be harmless), remains the most prominent anthrax false alarm in Colorado to date, but it's hardly the only one. According to Denver Fire Department statistics, hazardous materials units responded to 22 calls between September 15 and September 30. But that total ballooned to 76 calls between October 1 and October 17, with by far the greatest escalation taking place after anthrax was found in Florida and New York City. Indeed, there were fifteen haz-mat scrambles each on October 16 and October 17 alone. To that end, Hudson says, "we wanted to have a dialogue with the main conduits to the public that will help us to do better -- to get out good information without creating a rush of panic throughout the community."

Hudson next shares an e-mail sent to him by a radio-station producer unable to attend the conference. The message's author writes that he's been frustrated by public-information officers, or PIOs, who are either difficult to find at crucial moments or who refuse to release any information when reporters are being bombarded by hysterical accounts from all sides. Isn't there a way that PIOs could not only increase their visibility but offer code words -- something like, "This doesn't fit the likely scenario of a terrorist attack, but we're investigating it thoroughly" -- that might help news directors decide about an appropriate degree of coverage?

Basically, the answer to this question is "no." Hudson acknowledges that "a lack of information makes people more anxious," but assistant chief Mehrens says that PIOs on the scene can't make definitive statements without corroborating details. Harmer echoes that: "We can't even give you a hierarchy of 'This might be a problem, this might not.'" And environmental-health manager Donahue warns, "If we told you something wasn't a problem and it turned out to be, our credibility with the public would be down the chutes, and so would yours."

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