A threatening letter containing a mysterious powder sent the Iowa Capitol into lockdown and delayed action in the House for several hours on Tuesday.
Ultimately, a hazardous materials team found the substance not to be dangerous and released a crowd of perhaps 300 lawmakers, staffers and observers who had been sequestered in the House chamber and elsewhere at the Statehouse.
The letter was received by Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad, D-Des Moines, late Tuesday afternoon and was opened on the House floor in the midst of debate.
Abdul-Samad told reporters Tuesday evening that the letter contained “very threatening” language but declined to describe it in detail, citing an investigation now under way by state police.
“I cannot talk about what was in the letter at this point, because it’s turned over now to the State Patrol and also to DCI, but it was a threatening letter,” he said, referring to the state Division of Criminal Investigation. “This has now become a very serious legal matter.”
Abdul-Samad’s clerk, Drake Law School student Michael McRae, opened the letter after retrieving it from the lawmaker’s mailbox in the Capitol rotunda. The powder billowed out, he said, covering the area around Abdul-Samad’s desk, McRae’s clothing and hands, and even being inhaled by Abdul-Samad.
Rep. Kevin Koester, R-Ankeny, who said he was sitting near Abdul-Samad after the letter was opened and saw a white powder spill from an envelope, said the substance looked like flour or powdered sugar. Others described it as resembling a powdered detergent.
Abdul-Samad and Iowa State Patrol Capt. Mark Logsdon declined to identify the substance.
The letter apparently was hand-delivered to the Capitol, Logsdon said.
House leaders paused the debate that was then under way at about 3:45 p.m. and directed Abdul-Samad and McRae to the vestibule separating the House chambers from the Capitol’s second-floor rotunda.
They remained there throughout the afternoon and early evening. The entire building was locked down shortly before 5 p.m.
A hazardous materials team — wearing bright yellow plastic suits with orange boots and breathing apparatus — arrived around 5:30, and appeared to collect samples both inside the vestibule with Abdul-Samad and McRae and at the lawmaker’s desk on the House floor.
The two-man team’s fluorescent safety garb and Darth Vader-like exhalations contrasted sharply with the crowd of lawmakers and staff, who milled about on the floor in shirt-sleeves. Some even stood within an arm’s reach of Abdul-Samad’s desk, snapping photos as the hazmat workers conducted their work.
At around 6 p.m., House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, reported that preliminary testing indicated the substance was not hazardous. Officials with the 71st Civil Service Team, an inter-agency cooperative responsible for dealing with potentially hazardous situations like this, completed further testing, finally giving an all-clear at 7:50 p.m.
“With the sensitivity of government, it’s a realistic threat,” said Brian O’Keefe with the Des Moines Fire Department. “That’s why we’re going to this level of security and testing.”
Lawmakers resumed considering legislation before the all-clear, and even before Abdul-Samad returned to the chamber, wrapping up debate and holding a final vote on a bill to bar cities from using traffic cameras. The decision to get back to business didn’t sit well with everyone in the chamber.
“Continuation of this debate tonight is dumb, disrespectful and in poor taste,” Rep. Nathan Willems, D-Lisbon said, addressing Paulsen from the floor.
Others criticized the manner in which the incident itself was handled.
The initial response was uncontrolled and overly dismissive, potentially exposing an unknown number of Iowans to highly lethal agents like anthrax, said Sen. Bill Dotzler, a Waterloo Democrat who is trained in toxic threats.
More than an hour after the powder was discovered, state representatives and others were moving freely out of the House chambers to other areas of the Capitol and outside the building. Some senators even joked that their House peers should be banned from the Senate chambers.
But Dotzler, who was a volunteer with the John Deere Fire Brigade and fully trained with the Waterloo hazmat team, said the situation was no laughing matter.
House members should have been immediately isolated and even removed from the chambers to an isolated area to avoid further possible exposure, he said, rather than allowed to move freely inside and outside the building.
“In the world we live in you have to take every case seriously,” he said. “People said, ‘Well, it smelled like soap.’ Well, you can mix toxic biological agents in with soap and it could be something that’s pretty bad.”
Law enforcement and Abdul-Samad himself, however, defended the way the situation played out.
“Everything was handled properly, and I’m really happy with how things were handled,” Abdul-Samad said.
Logsdon, the state patrol captain, said it was easier to second-guess the response than to manage a potentially dangerous situation in a crowded and public place.
“It’s easy to question and armchair quarterback people, but the fact of the matter is once the letter was open and the substance was airborne, then it literally contaminated everyone in there,” he said.
House Majority Leader Linda Upmeyer said the situation was unprecedented for most, if not all, of the lawmakers now serving.
She said the response will be reviewed to determine if additional procedures are necessary for dealing with such situations.
“We’ll do a look back and make sure we have the systems in place that we need and the processes that make sure everyone gets here safe,” Upmeyer said.
Among the first people out of the Capitol were Michael Mericle and his grandparents, who had been visiting the building.
Mericle, who was visiting Des Moines from Omaha, said the ordeal wasn’t what he expected for his first visit to the Capitol.
“It was long,” he said. “We were walking out, and they told us to go back in. It was boring, but everyone is OK.”
Mericle passed the time by playing with his smartphone and sending text messages to friends, he said. He said he wasn’t nervous, and others in the Capitol didn’t seem to be either.
“But his mom was,” put in Julie Almquist, Mericle’s mother, who had been waiting outside the building for her son.
Almquist, who said she had interned at the Capitol while growing up in Des Moines, said she initially didn’t think the incident was a big deal, until the hours began dragging on.
They missed their dinner reservation at Splash, she said, but once they left the Capitol, they headed there anyway to try to get a table.