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CNN BREAKING NEWS

Interview With Maj. Jeff Allen

Aired April 22, 2003 - 11:37   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: There's a civil support team from the National Guard in Washington State responding to that. We have with us right now on the phone, Major Jeff Allen. He's with a similar team here in Georgia. I imagine can talk about what happens when you respond to a situation like this.
Major, good morning.

MAJOR JEFF ALLEN, WASHINGTON NATIONAL GUARD: Morning.

KAGAN: What can you tell us about what could be happening at this particular time in Tacoma?

ALLEN: Well, I think Mike Brooks did a pretty good job summing it up. Actually Mike and I have worked together down at the Southern (ph) Law Enforcement Training Center a few years back, and I'm glad to see him on TV, but he did a great job of explaining what a CST is. We have one here in the state of Georgia.

On site, there's a mobile laboratory, a white vehicle. It's cost is about $1.5 million. They have a BL III glove box, biological level three glove box, inside that mobile laboratory that they can take whatever substance they've found, put it in there and do the majority of their testing inside that glove box.

KAGAN: Major, let me just jump in here a second and ask you, why is it with these initial tests that there's so many false positives?

ALLEN: Well, what I understand the testing was done by the local first responders on the scene. And the handheld assay tickets that they use have a high rate of false positives, anywhere between 20 to 30 percent, whereas the civil support team, their hand held tickets are produced by joint process office bio. The quality control...

KAGAN: Major, I'm just going to jump in here for a second. Hopefully, you'll with us. There's a briefing being given right now in Tacoma, Washington. Let's listen in.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Also, a portion of the substance was taken up to the state health lab in Shore Line, and that could be possibly up to three hours before we have results on that.

QUESTION: Can you repeat the first part of that again? You said four of the five? UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Four of the five tests done here have come back negative. So there's no problem with those. We're still waiting for final results on the one final test.

QUESTION: Are you going to wait to reopen the post office until you get the test back from Shore Line, or will the fifth test do it?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The post office has decided they're going to keep the facility closed until they get the positive results from the state lab.

QUESTION: We're hearing from the department of Homeland Security back in our nation's capitol, that they are hearing from Tacoma that preliminary tests show there is a sign of the plague or botulism epoxin (ph) in one of these. Can you tell us where that has come from?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I have no idea where that information came from. That did not come from the fire department nor the postal inspectors nor the Tacoma police.

QUESTION: That is false as far as you know?

QUESTION: So that is absolutely false information?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: As far as I know, yes.

QUESTION: Is it possible that the National Guard issued that information, and that's where it's coming from and you might not know it?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't know. I don't know where that information came from.

QUESTION: Can you describe the substance, ma'am?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We originally -- our hazardous materials team said that it was a white powdery substance.

QUESTION: And it was found in envelopes addressed to someone?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't have that information.

QUESTION: How much of the substance was there?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm not exactly sure. Our hazardous materials team went in, and they, you know, scooped up what there was. And that's what they're using to test right now.

QUESTION: So it bled through the envelopes, is that what you're saying?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm not positive if they came from an envelope. I don't know how it got where it was. So I think we'll just have to wait and see. QUESTION: So again, four of the five tests came back negative? The Civil Support Team has tested four -- they have five tests and four of those...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Four of the five tests that they have concluded are negative.

QUESTION: What do the tests look for?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You probably would have to ask them. They could be more technical with you. I don't want to give you incorrect information about that.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: And they test for something hazardous?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, yes.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE).

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No.

QUESTION: The preliminary tests.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Preliminary tests, four of the five tests have been completed. And those four tests that have been completed have come back negative. OK. So here's one test that has not been completed, and when it is completed -- it should be within an hour that that test is completed -- then we'll know for sure.

QUESTION: And it's not that this test is not any more -- you're worried about the part of this test taken, it's just that it's taking longer?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's just the one that took longer, yes.

QUESTION: OK.

QUESTION: Is that the same test or is it a different test than the other four?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Again, I'd have to have you talk with the technical guys over there about exactly what they're testing for and all of that. I'll let them answer that.

QUESTION: Captain Davis (ph), do you know what those -- what the substance is then in the four? Does it show what it is if it's not?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't know what that is.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: I want to be clear. The preliminary indication was bio-toxins. You started doing some secondary testing, and you did five secondary tests, and four of the five showed nothing. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Negative, yes.

QUESTION: OK.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And sometimes as the preliminary tests...

QUESTION: Is this the test that you guys did? The fire department or the Guards?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, the initial tests, when our hazardous materials team got on the scene, did have -- it did come back positive for some sort of bio-toxin. OK. And then, at that point we do more sophisticated testing. OK. So we called in the guys who have the sophisticated equipment, and they basically have the capability to do more in-depth testing.

So our initial one, you know, hopefully it will be just that it came up a false positive is what we're hoping for.

QUESTION: The four out of five you're talking about, that's what the Army National guard did?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Correct.

QUESTION: OK.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes. And I'd refer you to them for asking what...

QUESTION: What can you tell us about the satellite dish? Are they communicating with authorities on the East Coast? Do you have any idea? Experts that are helping the Guard on the testing?

QUESTION: I don't know. The fifth test...

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: The first fifth test has been take to the lab, Captain Davis (ph), or is it still here?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

QUESTION: OK.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's still here on the scene being tested, and then also a portion of the substance has been taken to the state health lab in Shoreline. And that could take, you know, three hours or something for the final.

QUESTION: OK. OK.

QUESTION: So how long until we know what exactly might be inside this facility?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I would think when the state lab in Shoreline has completed their testing, which could be up to, you know, three hours. Then we should have a more definite idea of what exactly it is.

QUESTION: Can you (UNINTELLIGIBLE) one more time a little bit about the situation with the National Guard, what they're doing right now? We talked a little bit about some of these tests, the four out of five tests. Could you explain that to us?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: As I told those ladies over there, I'm not really up on all the technical aspect of that. So if you have questions about that, I think it would be best for you to ask them.

QUESTION: The technical part. But what has been done over this past hour or so? You mentioned four out of five tests. What's happening with that?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They ran five tests, and four of them are complete.

QUESTION: And complete tests indicate negative?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Negative.

(CROSSTALK)

KAGAN: All right, we've been listening to some information from the Tacoma Fire Department. In fact, this is probably the clearest information, the most reassuring information we've had since we started following this story about an hour ago.

Apparently, there were initial tests done on the substance that was found inside this mail distribution facility. Those initial tests did prove positive. They brought in the experts, and they have done five additional tests. Four of those tests have come back indeed to be negative. The fifth is still out at a state lab in an area called Shoreline. It could take as long as three hours for that final test to come back, but it does appear for now that all things are indicating that this could have turned out to be a false positive test on the initial test.

Again, they've done an additional five tests on the substance that first tested to be positive for either botulism or plague. Four of the five tests are back, and they are all proving to be negative.

HARRIS: Now, as we mentioned moments ago, what we also learned about the people, there were four people there who were exposed the most. They were taken out. They were taken to Tacoma St. Joseph's Hospital.

Joining us right now on the phone is Gail Robinetti (ph). She works there at the hospital. And she's got some information for us -- we have information -- actually we're going to be getting Gail Robinetti (ph) on the phone any minute now, we expect. Gail Robinetti (ph) has got some information about what we now think is three men and one woman who have been actually at that hospital for a number of hours right now, undergoing some testing and some screening to figure out exactly what it is, is happening with them. The preliminary word we've gotten, again, on their case is that they are not showing any symptoms of any kind of exposure of anything. So hopefully we'll get clarification on that in just a moment.

KAGAN: We'll work on the hospital in just a moment. First, let's go back to this site at Tacoma and listen to the police department.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

QUESTION: Have neighbors expressed concern at this point to you at all since you've been out here? What have neighbors said to you?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Nothing. I haven't talked to any of the neighbors here.

QUESTION: Do you have any idea of how much mail was processed and got out of there? I know you handle a large volume of mail.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was discovered after midnight. And at that point, I don't believe much mail had left the facility. It was still being processed. So I don't think there was any mail that had left the facility that could endanger the public.

QUESTION: The postal service is very highly tuned with this situation after 9/11. I know this is a situation where our postal workers are worried about (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, we have a standard operating procedure that any time that there's loose powder found in any location within the post office or coming from a package or a letter that we have a set of protocols that we follow, including notifying the local authorities about it (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

QUESTION: Would you mind recapping what exactly the four employees found, saw and did.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I can only tell you (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

QUESTION: OK.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What I understand is that a letter, a group of letters was there, an employee was stamping it for postage to send it back. And when she stamped it, some powder showed up.

QUESTION: Thank you.

KAGAN: And so there is a little bit more information about how the situation began, at least the concern about that. An employee working in this large mail distribution center in Tacoma, Washington, stamping as postage due, and then this brown substance coming out, and then the initial test, the initial testing proving positive for the substance that would cause botulism or plague.

However, most importantly, we learned from the fire official right before that, an additional five tests have been conducted, and four of them have proved negative.

HARRIS: Exactly. Still waiting on the final results from one more test, still expecting or hoping to get a negative result on that test.

And we've been talking this morning about the response teams that have come in, whether it's been the National Guard or the local authorities there as well, to this postal facility. And all of this basically is a routine that's been spruced up, if you will, because of our experience with the anthrax scares of year-and-a-half ago or so.

And Our Kelli Arena, who is our Justice Department correspondent, covered that quite a bit. And Kelli is joining us right now.

Kelli -- can you tell us right now, I asked Mike Brooks about this earlier, but what is it that we learned from what we all went through and observed with that anthrax scare period? And how we use the lessons learned to address something that's happening right now with this right now.

KELLI ARENA, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, we learned quite a bit, Leon. I mean, what you're seeing unfold very publicly right now is something that unfolds quite privately across the nation. Dozens of times each month, we usually find out about these powder-related scares after the fact.

But I speak very routinely with FBI officials from the Washington, D.C. field office, and they go out on these runs quite a bit, whether it's a mail room facility that finds some powder coming out of an envelope, or a postal facility or at the U.S. Capitol.

But it may seem to some of our viewers that this is a very important one-time incident. In fact, this happens dozens of times a month across the country. That's No. 1.

But what you're seeing, too, are protocols that were put in place. It's the immediate shutdown and evacuation of a facility. If you remember shortly after the real anthrax episode that we had right after the September 11th attacks, there were reporters and officials brought in to a postal facility that had been contaminated. And then shortly thereafter, all of those people had to be put on antibiotics because there was possible contamination. A big lesson learned.

The area is closed off, it's cordoned off, no one will be allowed in until they are absolutely sure that there's no dangerous toxin that was in that facility.

There are labs that have been set up in every state, local and regional labs that have been set up so that the transport of these materials is not a big deal. They can get them tested rather quickly with some sophisticated technology. Just the investigative procedure, getting people that may have been exposed to something to hospital facilities very quickly, and then having hospital staff completely up- to-speed in terms of any quarantine issues that may be a factor, in terms of getting people on antibiotics as quickly as possible. You heard from Sanjay Gupta earlier. The medical profession will probably just go ahead and, as a precaution, prescribe antibiotics before the fact to start treatment as quickly as possible just in case there was some exposure and not wait for the results of tests to come in.

So there has been a great deal learned just about protocols, and also on the technological front in terms of transporting material so as not to further contaminate an area.

But as I said, you're seeing something very publicly played out that plays out very quietly across the nation dozens of times each month -- Leon.

HARRIS: Understood. We see much of that protocol you described play out this morning as a matter of fact.

Also, we heard this morning, Daryn, that some sort of a screening system was supposed to be going into this facility in June of this year.

KAGAN: And it was our Jeanne Meserve who was telling us that, and she's back with us on the phone with some more information.

As we go to Jeanne, I want to remind our viewers that, once again, the very important information we heard from the Tacoma Fire Department, and that is that they've done five additional tests and four of those have come back negative so far.

Jeanne -- what else have you been able to learn by working the phones?

MESERVE: According to officials at the Department of Homeland Security, more comprehensive tests have been done at the state laboratory. And they have determined that the substance that was found in Tacoma this morning was not toxic.

I am told that further testing is being done on this material to determine exactly what it is. But once again, those initial field tests which indicated this could be botulinum toxin or the plague turned out to be incorrect. The more comprehensive tests are now back. They indicate that this is not a toxic substance.

I also wanted to add that a powdery substance was also found at a Federal Express facility in Ft. Myers, Florida. Very preliminary tests on that, field tests also indicate that that is not toxic. But once again, they're doing more testing. They want to know not only what it isn't, but what it is.

KAGAN: Well, and that brings us back to I think the first time when we talked to you over an hour, Jeanne, when we saw this initial report, you cautioned us, you cautioned our viewers, these first tests that they do, these first response tests can have a very high percentage of false positive, and that looks like that is what that is turning out to be.

It's been over an hour of our coverage. I think we're going to fit in a quick break here.

Much more to wrap up the situation in Tacoma in just a moment -- first, this quick break.

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