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Classes resume at U a day after bomb hoax

  • Article by: Chao Xiong and Charley Bruce
  • Star Tribune
  • April 19, 2007 - 7:47 AM

Classes resume at the University of Minnesota today, after thousands of students and employees were sent home Wednesday when a sheet of paper that threatened explosions was found.

University of Minnesota sophomore Joe Plocher’s gut told him that the note at the bottom of a bathroom sink Wednesday was a fake. Typed in capital letters and poorly punctuated, it threatened the bombing of at least five university buildings by 10 that night.

In the aftermath of the nation's deadliest school shooting at Virginia Tech, leaving 33 dead on Monday, he couldn't ignore it. So minutes before his 12:20 p.m., four-hour organic-chemistry lab, he snapped a photo of the note in a second-floor men's restroom in Smith Hall with his cell phone and reported it to a faculty member.

"It didn't scare me," he said of the note, but, "If it turned out not to be fake, then I'd feel pretty rotten -- wouldn't I? -- if I hadn't reported it."

Thousands of students and faculty members on the East Bank campus were eventually evacuated without incident from eight buildings, which were locked down for the rest of the day. Authorities and bomb-sniffing dogs found nothing unusual and by 10 p.m. everything was reported to be fine.

"It's very serious," University Police Chief Greg Hestness said. "This is a major disruption."

Hestness said the university wanted to err on the side of safety in light of the Virginia Tech case, which has spawned fake threats or security incidents at universities and high schools across the country.

In Minnesota, officials in Starbuck locked down the school Wednesday because of a "low-level" threat. And at Central Lake College in Brainerd, a test of the emergency alert system was accidentally sent out via text messages referring to a shooter on campus. A correction was sent and the school apologized.

Other schools, meanwhile, took proactive steps as a precaution. At Eden Prairie High School, for example, additional liaisons and patrol officers are on campus, officials said.

Hestness said Wednesday that he understood the possibility of the University of Minnesota threat being a copycat hoax incident but that officials still took it seriously.

At a midafternoon news conference, he said:

A student found the note in a Smith Hall bathroom and reported it to a faculty member, who in turn reported it to school officials. Police were first notified at 12:15 p.m. He said authorities took the note seriously because it named specific buildings and times.

University officials would neither confirm nor deny that Plocher initially reported the threat. However, a copy of the note obtained by the Star Tribune is authentic, said Hestness and university spokesman Dan Wolter.

It reads, in part, in capital letters: "I am sick and tired of these buildings and people who operate in them" It continues, "Today before 10 pm I am gonna bomb them simultaniously, I have nothing to lose"

The buildings evacuated were Morrill Hall, where the university administration offices are located; Walter Library, the Science Classroom Building and five other halls: Smith, Appleby, Kolthoff, Fraser and Johnston.

University officials said they expanded the evacuation list to include some buildings not listed in the note because of their proximity to each other.

The response involved a long list of law-enforcement agencies, including the FBI and nearby jurisdictions.

Vice President of University Services Kathleen O'Brien said that in her 35 years as a student and an employee at the university she has never seen such a large evacuation.

The university said it sent an e-mail message to 80,000 students, faculty and staff at about 1:15 p.m. alerting everyone to the threat. That number of e-mails, the school said, took about 90 minutes to get to all recipients. Some students reported receiving the e-mail at 3 p.m. "That's an issue of concern for us over the long run," she said of the slow e-mail.

Also, each of the buildings has a radio system that emitted a tone and verbal alert that there was a threat and evacuation was necessary.

Students react

Dylan Bindman said he had been in a 200-student lecture class in the Science Classroom Building for about 15 minutes when a police officer came in and spoke to his teacher. The teacher told students to leave.

"The whole building was being evacuated," he said, adding that the university and police were being cautious.

Karlie Dulong was sitting in front of Coffman Union with two friends who were talking on their cell phones about the incident.

Dulong said she was headed into Smith against a "herd" of people, but didn't think much of it because there is always a class coming out of the building at that time. Then she heard police say to leave the Northrop Mall area between the auditorium and Coffman because of a bomb threat.

She worries that people will stop listening to such threats. "People will start to think, 'Oh, another bomb threat' and blow it off," she said.

The threat also disrupted a gathering that included U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters. She and others were removed for about 45 minutes from a meeting room in the McNamara Alumni Center, where a transportation conference was being held. After the room was checked by a dog team, the conference resumed and the rest of the building was not evacuated.

"Obviously, this is a stressful time for our community," university President Robert Bruininks said in a statement late Wednesday. "The safety of our students, faculty and staff was our first priority and we appreciate your cooperation throughout the day."

In December, two offices at the university's Carlson School of Management were evacuated after a report of a suspected pipe bomb. The package was found to be harmless.

Staff writers Jim Foti and Bill McAuliffe and the Associated Press contributed to this report. Charley Bruce is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune. Chao Xiong • 612-673-4391 •

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