First Anthrax Scare Triggers Emergency Response on Island

Editor's Note: State public health officials reported Saturday that testing of the substance found in the envelope delivered to Vineyard Gazette editor and publisher Richard Reston was negative and showed no trace of anthrax. Officials called the test definitive and closed the case.

An anthrax scare turned up on the Vineyard this week when the editor and publisher of the Vineyard Gazette received a suspicious envelope in the mail that contained a gray granular substance.

The incident took place early Monday afternoon. Edgartown resident Mary Jo Reston, who is the retired publisher and general manager of the Vineyard Gazette, had picked up her mail at the Edgartown post office and taken it home. As she sorted through the mail she noticed an envelope that had extensive gray stains across much of the envelope.

The envelope was addressed to her husband, Richard Reston, who is editor and publisher of the Gazette. The return address was from the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) in Lakewood, Calif. The envelope was sealed and there was no postmark.

According to accounts later from both the Restons and the Edgartown police, Mrs. Reston opened the envelope carefully, looked into it and saw a gray granular substance in the bottom, as well as a powdery substance that looked like lint.

Mrs. Reston called Mr. Reston, who was at the newspaper office in Edgartown. Mr. Reston went to the house and a short time later the Edgartown police were notified.

Edgartown police chief Paul Condlin said that when he received the call, he was in the middle of a meeting with Edgartown fire chief Antone Bettencourt to discuss how to respond to such an incident. Mr. Condlin said he told the fire chief about the call and then went to the Reston house to investigate the report.

He said he remained outside the house and advised the Restons to leave the letter in the house and close the door to the room. After hearing the description of the envelope, Mr. Condlin decided to notify a regional hazardous materials team. Two firemen who are specially trained in handling hazardous materials - Capt. Robert Kelleher of Yarmouth and Lieut. Martin Greene of Bourne - were dispatched to the Vineyard in a state police helicopter.

The two-man team arrived at the Reston home at about 7:40 p.m.

"They suited up, safeguarded the letter by putting it in a triple layer of plastic and removed it from the home," Chief Condlin said.

On Tuesday morning, Edgartown police detective Craig Edwards drove to a state department of public health laboratory in Jamaica Plain to deliver the plastic-encased envelope.

The contents of the envelope are now being tested by state public health officials; by press time, there were still no results.

Mr. Condlin said the Restons reacted appropriately. "We just had to treat it in an appropriate way and Jody did exactly the right thing," Chief Condlin said. "Mr. and Mrs. Reston were calm and cooperative and wanted to ensure that they were doing the right thing - that is the type of response I would want anyone to have," the chief added.

Mr. Condlin said local police, fire and health officials are just now developing protocols for dealing with reports of suspicious materials.

"Don't move anything; leave it where it is; close off the room, wash your hands," Chief Condlin said. He added: "Don't pass it around to other people, and don't bring anything to the police or fire stations."

Mr. Condlin said anyone who encounters suspicious materials should call 911 and local officials will respond.

"I learned a lot from this," Chief Condlin said. He said the incident is not a cause for alarm. "The likelihood of somebody receiving a package with a biological agent in it is very remote," he said.

Mr. Reston praised the work of the local officials.

"The community should be very confident about the skill, the care and the devotion of our public safety and law enforcement officials, especially in times of emergency. It's reassuring," Mr. Reston said.