Durban - Fifteen people, including five police officers, were treated in hospital on Wednesday for possible anthrax contamination after coming into contact with an envelope containing suspicious white powder.
The envelope, received by an unidentified business on Che Guevara (Moore) Road around midday, contained an ominous warning, according to a source: “You think you are clever, let’s see what you can do about this.”
The letter also had a thread leading out from the envelope.
Ten employees of the business - next door to a pre-school - and five uMbilo police officers had to be decontaminated, using special liquid, before being sent to hospital.
It was not clear if the envelope had been sealed, or who had delivered it.
Durban fire department divisional commander Owen Singh said one of the employees had taken the envelope to the uMbilo police station.
Police spokesman Captain Thulani Zwane said the employee had gone to the station commander’s office with the envelope.
“The man walked past the secretary and into the office. We are not sure who opened the envelope but a white powder substance fell onto the desk. Forensic experts and the bomb squad had been called in as a precaution. We are awaiting a report from forensics,” he said.
Police cordoned off and decontaminated the area around the police station, on Deodar Road. The road was closed for three hours while the bomb squad and forensic analysts combed the area.
Police also cordoned off Che Guevara Road between Cleaver Road and Bonamour Avenue. The cordon tape was lifted at about 7pm.
Speaking to the Daily News outside the business premises, Singh said that 10 people who had come into contact with the envelope at the business had to go through a decontamination cubicle.
“We followed emergency procedures and cordoned off the business premises as a precaution. Our biological chemical unit assisted. At this stage, I do not know what powder it was,” he said.
The pre-school was not affected.
When the Daily News arrived at the scene, a provincial ambulance was parked alongside the pavement in Che Guevara Road with sheets covering its windows. This was to shield the 10 people who had to strip naked before going through the decontamination shower.
Two blue bins in the cordoned-off area were believed to have been used to discard their clothes.
There have been several anthrax scares in Durban over the years, including two at the old Durban International Airport.
In January 2004, 15 people were quarantined in a special ward at Prince Mshiyeni Memorial Hospital after white powder was found in an envelope in the mail room.
In March 2004, the second scare at the airport led to the check-in area being cordoned off. Nine staff members were examined and cleared.
In 2001 former mayor Obed Mlaba called in the National Intelligence Agency to investigate anthrax scares that brought to a virtual standstill the Durban office of the provincial Department of Education, Durban central post office and the Umbilo post office. Forty-two people were examined and seven quarantined after they handled envelopes containing white powder, feared to be anthrax.
Anthrax is considered to be a potential agent for use in biological warfare. It has been implicated in a series of recent incidents in the US and elsewhere, apparently spread intentionally in the mail.