Hazard a Guess

When Galen Sherwin opened a brown-stained letter on February 22 that read ANTHRAX. HAVE A NICE DEATH, she did what most people would do – she called 911. As president of the city’s chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW), Sherwin knew about the recent rash of threats against abortion clinics across the country, and she took the letter seriously. So when the 911 operator failed to give her instruction (other than to wait for a call back), she called the police directly. But the cop she spoke with said only that she should wait for a squad car to arrive.

The 911 call only presaged greater chaos. About ten minutes after her first call, she found officers waiting outside; strangely, they invited her to sit in their cruiser, which she did. Anxious, Sherwin soon got out and waited while officials from various agencies, including a hazardous-materials team in full protective gear, arrived and debated who was in charge and what should be done with Sherwin. “They were all ignoring me,” she says. “I was sort of like this thing they did not know what to do with.”

Finally, a fireman told her to go down to the building’s boiler room, strip down, and zip herself into a plastic suit – which came without the headgear the hazardous-materials team was wearing, Sherwin says. She then endured a six-hour wait during which she found it difficult to get a cup of water. “When you’re at the mercy of law-enforcement officials, you have to advocate for yourself,” she says. “It’s hard to do that in a white plastic bunny suit.”

Even after it was determined that the letter contained no anthrax, the hazardous-materials team did not want her to leave with anything that had been in the office, including her coat and bag. Shortly before closing the investigation at 7 p.m. they did turn over the items (Sherwin’s bag happened to have a change of clothes in it) but not her original clothing. And when it came time for an escort home, a cop wondered aloud if she was wearing any underwear. “It was dehumanizing enough to be in this white suit all day, naked underneath and freezing,” she says.

Jerry Hauer, the director of the mayor’s Office of Emergency Management, was at the scene. Had Sherwin shown symptoms of contamination, such as respiratory problems, she would have been treated differently, he says. There was, he says, “discussion throughout the incident” between the Fire Department and the police, which might account for the confusion Sherwin says she witnessed.

Lieutenant Sean Crawley, a Police Department spokesperson, says 911 operators are not specifically trained to respond to hazardous-material threats, but notes that calling the precincts directly may or may not be effective, since, as Crawley puts it, the response will “depend on what cop answers the phone, to be honest with you.”

“I’m going to look at the fact that the Police Department operators do not have a protocol, because they should have been working on that,” Hauer says.

Sherwin, for her part, insists that clear protocols for dealing with such threats are especially crucial now that anti-abortion forces are increasingly “moving in on the clinics themselves and trying, through intimidation and threats, to shut them down.”

Her own ordeal, Sherwin adds, was not without its moments. Her shoes were gone, so a firefighter fashioned footwear for her by cutting boots from a plastic suit. With the anthrax letter in the custody of an FBI-NYPD task force, the boots are her only souvenir.

Hazard a Guess