Spores Wars (Hyena Fall, 2001)
By Charles Orloski
25 April, 2015
As I write, April 24, 2:17 P.M., my AOL “Trending” news reported “the Statue of Liberty is being evacuated, and N.Y.P.D. said they're responding to a report of a suspicious package.” As a former emergency spill response supervisor/worker, I look out apartment window, sunny cold, tranquil. Ellis Island over 2-hours from Scranton, tourists egress out of Statue of Liberty, boarded tour boat to safety. There is nothing like the peril of looking within the eyes of Lady Liberty.
For those not quite familiar, emergency spill response jobs are demanding, require individual OSHA 40-Hour Hazwoper training, and commercial workers are typically “on-call,” each day, 24/7. In early 2000, my company mandated attendance at a peculiar training titled “Emergency Response to Terrorism,” which was sponsored by PA Luzerne County Emergency Management Agency. I shall never forget the “expert” instructor who had Miami Police Department affiliation, and showed several film clips of world terror events, and obsessively replayed gruesome bombing aftermaths. At one point, he discussed a bomb threat which happened at an unidentified U.S.-based corporation building. The instructor explained how he ORDERED a maintenance man to search building sectors, under threat. Politely I asked, “Uh, Sir, what about OSHA laws which are designed to protect American workers in hazardous situations?” Angry, his eyes opened wide and shouted, “Pay attention, Mister! You're obviously missing the point. There's no such thing as OSHA laws during terror investigations!”
In awe, I gave the passionate instructor a skeptical donkey nod. Inwardly, I figured post-9/11 plant maintenance personnel better get Kamikaze prepared, equipped with special robes and take mescaline along for extra duty forays into hallways and closets. (Note: A photograph is supplied so that readers can actually see the astonishing Joker-like cover of the FEMA training manual “Emergency Response to Terrorism,” taped to my family refrigerator)
Life in aftermath of Twin Tower attacks dramatically altered my job description, employment requirements. U.S. haz-mat teams were alerted to possible N.Y.C. subway sarin gas attacks, and environmental companies were quickly coordinating plans with hospitals for Mass Casualty Incident Response. On October 15, 2001, I sat at desk of my Harrisburg, PA-based office, employed by Environmental Products & Services, Inc. (E.P.S.I.) as an Environmental Health & Safety Coordinator.
Approximately 1:30 P.M., busy with monotonous waste material disposal profile tasks, I purposefully put a Counting Crows C.D. on loud so that our attractive Administrative Assistant, Jennifer H., would enter and shake hips to the song, “Mrs. Jones.” Unfortunately, and almost time to return-commute to my Taylor home, Operations Manager Mike Bell entered, ominously uttered, “Chuck, get your spill bag and prepare to mobilize to a Level “B” incident! Lebanon County E.M.A. Director just called our team to Lebanon Post Office where unidentified white powder was found upon envelopes inside a bulk mail container.”
As my father Charlie lay dying in the Taylor Nursing Home, alone, anxious, I drove company pick-up truck # 649 north on Interstate 81. On horizon, I looked at jet exhaust plumes that kris-crossed sky, activity which I thought might be related to U.S. military surveillance flights, guarding against aerial terror attack! How nostalgic for bygone 1990's when summoned to predictable highway fuel spills, leaking 55-gallon drums filled with solvent, and every now and then, a murder and subsequent “Blood Borne Pathogen” cleanup? But now... obligatory, albeit military emergency response duty for terror attacks! Issues and questions on mind – “All must be vigilant,” Praise the Lord and bypass OSHA protection!
Our haz-mat team arrived at Lebanon Post Office, and with quite a crowd developing around facility perimeter, Operations Manager, Mike Bell, coolly met with County officials, scoped-out the unusual mission and developed a sound work plan. Soon, under OSHA Level B “Personal Protection Equipment,”and given potential airborne hazards at hand, our entry team approached the canvas container where evidence of white, powdery, and gritty substances were found. Our team successfully located impacted parcels, secured and isolated the container in a “safe zone” until U.S. Post Office officials made provisions for sampling and analyzing the material. (Note: Courtesy of Lebanon Daily News, a photograph is displayed, with headline”Anthrax Scare hits county.” That's author Charles “Chuck” Orloski, dressed in yellow Tyvek suit and providing decontamination rinse to entry team leader and friend, Jim R.)
Upon departing scene, sweaty and mortified, I stopped truck momentarily, spoke with a sweet lady, Tracy, who lived in 800 block of Chestnut Street, behind the post office, and who said, “I was going to mail a water bill, but I saw you guys with masks and yellow coats on. I hope its nothing dangerous to breathe?”
“Well Miss,” I replied, “we must wait for sample laboratory analysis report, and then we'll know exactly what the white stuff is. For now, you best be calm, pay your water bill.”
“Ha, ha, no getting away from “bills” terror,” she replied, “and thanks for doing a good job!”
A good job? Uh, what is that? It was 8:30 P.M., was over 1 & ½ hours away from my Taylor home, I was a salary employee and not getting paid a dime “over time.” A good job? I'd say a good job is one that does not hurt others. Being an emergency spill response supervisor is an honorable job, we often get to help people who are in serious jams. Afterward customers get the costly “service” invoice, and they generally exhibit repulsion for me. And now... on top of typical appetites and “Costs of Living,” America had anthrax threats. Well, I thought, screw it – after ten years of doing this environmental response crap, its time for me to listen to WBAL, the Baltimore Oriole game.
At I 81 North, Hazleton exit, very tired, and as a student of Soviet history and politics, I happened to be aware about rural Russians who blanch and yawn; they're unfazed about anthrax exposures. In Tuva Province, farmers never received envelopes tainted with powder and spores, but instead, they suffered daily exposure to farm animals that carried the disease. In contrast, 21st Century Americans are moved to fear (panic) from apocalyptic al-Qaeda anthrax attacks? Why do “they” hate us? O well, I figured, like W. Bush pontificated, “everything's changed,”and Amerika better get used to it! I carefully checked company “pager,” made sure volume on high. The entire Emergency Spill Response Nation on high alert, and I knew that at any moment, pager would buzz, my life no longer mine.
Sure enough, white powder findings proliferated throughout Pennsylvania, the U.S. government declared War Against Terror, and on hourly basis, our company telephones rang with requests for immediate emergency response mobilization. Hospitals, airport tarmacs, movie theaters, bars, truck stops, private residences... no place in America safe from deadly spores. At work desk, Harrisburg PA, I was in-charge of maintaining proper “Chain-of-Custody” log of all white powder samples returned to base by crews who had successfully accomplished response tasks. Soon, I had recorded approximately 15-samples which required laboratory identification testing. My company in throes of lots of work, ramped-up monthly billing, I approached the Branch Manager, professionally asked him, “Uh, Glenn, who the hell is supposed to analyze all these white powder samples?”
“Well, Chuck, to be honest, I don't know. Why don't you call the F.B.I.?”
“No problem, Glenn! I'll call F.B.I. Do you know their number?
“No, but you can call and ask for directory assistance.”
“Will do, Glenn!”
Man, how I wished I had a different (expletive) job! Remarkably easy, I got an F.B.I. employee on telephone, and courteously scribbled directions to the building where white powder samples needed to be delivered and tested. I listened closely to a pleasant gal who gave directions to the F.B.I. base, located in Philadelphia, PA. Very pleased with self, thought I'd get a “star” for the day, I informed Branch Manager Glenn about my finding, and he immediately dispatched me to drive to Philadelphia, and deliver all the samples. O (expletive)! More freaking “plantation overtime.” Would not arrive home until midnight. O (expletive)!
The rest is Tamerlane sacrificial history. Me (the spores “Commander”) driving to Philadelphia, on a foggy rain night, and following directions penciled upon scrap paper. Hands held tight to wheel, I looked for Woodhaven Rd., Exit 63, the take 95 South to Academy Road Exit. “O Jesus Christ... please get me the hell out of this nuttiness!”
Soon, blood pressure likely 200 over 110, felt like “cat clung to curtain,” I arrived at entrance driveway of a large Philadelphia Sheriff facility. Tried to compose self, I turned pick-up truck into lot, and a guard immediately ordered me to halt. Pistol drawn, he said, “Identify yourself, Sir! Show me driver's license, proof of company affiliation, and explain exactly your business.”
“Sir, I have white powder samples and the F.B.I. told me to bring them here for analysis.”
The officer verified credentials, and directed me to a rather small red brick building where an F.B.I. team would greet me, and I'd relinquish the samples to them. Upon arrival, I noted a line of about eight people ahead of me, all carrying coolers presumably containing white powder samples. Got in-line, neared entrance door, and I saw personnel at desk, they casually wore gray F.B.I. T-shirts, holsters, packed heat. Turned, and two people behind, I noticed an officer dressed in black S.W.A.T gear, including a jacket with emblem, “Philadelphia Bomb Squad,” and carrying a plastic pumpkin sealed inside a clear plastic bag. Yes... a plastic orange pumpkin, black mouth, eyes and nose, handle on top!
Fairly quickly, an F.B.I. agent took custody of my samples, sincerely thanked me for my “service.” Wanted to get the hell out of Philadelphia soon as possible, but my curiosity about the weird pumpkin got best of me and I hung around until the “Bomb Squad”guy finished business, came outside. Three other guys stood with me, smoked cigarettes, and to my surprise, upon exiting door, the pumpkin bearer removed black helmet, and in the late-Lou Reed's words, I learned “he was a she!” Very affable, she smiled, drew a smoke from pocket, lit up. I could not take suspense any longer, blurted out, “Uh Miss, can you please tell us what was up with the plastic pumpkin?”
“Ha, ha! Funny you should ask. Well its like this... a lady inside a Philly Thrift Store reached high upon shelf with a stick, knocked down the pumpkin, fell on floor, and white powder spilled out. Ha, ha. Imagine that, Sir, and the poor clerk got nervous, called 911, and here I am! A good one for our wild times, eh?”
I suspect it was OK for me to laugh at the bizarre Thrift Store incident, I did, and no one hauled me “in” for interrogation. The Bomb Squad did its job, and I could finally head home for Taylor, PA. In meantime, throughout Pennsylvania, emergency response teams were summoned to white powder findings. No doubt, there were facilities who had sound reason to fear, and since U.S. Senators Leahy and Daschle received letters laced with anthrax, a death in Florida, the authorities had to take every call seriously. Naturally, there were very annoying (ridiculous) events, and I shall humbly describe just one.
A friend, I'll call him Big Mike, worked for a P.E.M.A certified emergency response company based in Lackawanna County. A January morning, 2002, Big Mike and his boss were dispatched to a rural home, located nearby Wysox, PA. Two elderly sisters lived together and one insisted on calling the PA State Police in order to tell them she had received a letter with anthrax on it. The frightened lady allegedly indicated “the Taliban might be after me!” A few hours later, exhausted, Big Mike and boss made it to the house, and entered scene; clean, a wilted poinsettia plant on window sill. A State Policeman stood beside the stricken lady who sat weeping at her kitchen table. In adjoining room, Big Mike heard the sister holler, “O, get off it, sis, why don't you relax, watch TV Soaps!”
Painfully tired, and in need of liquor, Big Mike approached table and saw powdered donuts, half bitten, and which lay only a couple feet from the “anthrax” contaminated letter. Mike thought to himself, “Is this (expletive) country going nuts?” In front of the State Policeman, Big Mike daringly dipped finger into the letter's powder, tasted it, and said, “Uh, its only powdered sugar, Miss.”
The fact is that white powder emergency responses, the many I did (!), were understandably based upon government & Media induced fear, gross material mis-identification, subsequent 911 calls, and expensive response crews going on “billable” panic trips all over Pennsylvania. In Moby Dick, chapter “The Hyena,” Herman Melville discussed “queer times of worryings, prospects of sudden disaster, peril of life, and jolly punches in the side by the unseen and unaccountable Joker.” On April 18, 2015, presently working as a Scranton School District bus driver, I happened to read Paul Craig Roberts article, titled “The Anthrax Coverup Exposed.” He opined (rather hopelessly) about the American public as “content in an insouciant Matrix existence.” What's more, Mr. Roberts “often wonders” if Senators Leahy and Daschle understood the anthrax letters to be Washington's Godfather style warning, “Get out of Tyranny way, or we will kill you.”
Momentarily I return to check “Trending” AOL news and see how evacuation conditions progress at Statue of Liberty. Sunshine today, I shall go to family scrapbook, leaf pages, look at old pictures, fond memories. Why here's one where I'm dressed in OSHA Level “C” Personal-Protective-Equipment! Ah, nostalgia, a Brave New World response inside Hershey Medical Center elevator, white stuff lay upon floor, looked like baby powder, had to don cartridge-respirator, could not take chances. Perhaps tomorrow, home safe in Taylor apartment, I'll do as “Dubya” once recommended, assemble The Times-Tribune sale coupons, and go shopping at Price Chopper for groceries. My, my, Paul Craig Roberts – “It's obvious the purpose of the anthrax letters was to raise the fear level in order to guarantee passage of the tyrannical PATRIOT Act.” (Sigh) As if daily working life needed more stress and jingoism? Nervous cruise boat passengers sailed west from Ellis Island to Matrix safety... and where do I go from here, Mr. Moby Joker?
Charles “Chuck” Orloski lives in Taylor, Pennsylvania. He can be reached at ChucktheZek@aol.com
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