Suspicious Radioactive Packages Forced Evacuation of 2,500 from Fairgrounds

Nov. 19--Two common radioactive materials found beneath a car forced at least 2,500 people at a Christian youth rally and a crafts fair from the state fairgrounds Saturday.

State Police officials received a tip about two suspicious-looking packages beneath a car near the Fine Arts Building on the fairgrounds at about 3:15 p.m., said State Police Lt. Juan Jose Martinez.

The packages were found to be lead containers holding substances known as Cobalt-57 and Cesium-137, said Rick Chavez, Albuquerque Fire Department public information officer.

Cobalt-57 is a medical radiological isotope used for medical diagnosis, Chavez said. It is also used by plumbers to detect leaks in pipes and is not particularly dangerous.

"It's not used to make a bomb," Martinez said.

Cesium-137 is a common radioisotope used in thousands of devices including moisture-density gauges and leveling gauges and can be used to treat cancer, according to the Environmental Protection Agency's Web site.

Martinez said there is an ongoing criminal investigation into the incident. Officials wouldn't speculate how the packages ended up at the fairgrounds.

When State Police first examined the containers, readings showed the immediate area surrounding the packages had slight signs of radiation, Martinez said. Police then ordered an evacuation and didn't allow people to leave in their vehicles.

At about 6 p.m., authorities bused those who were stranded to the Cesar Chavez Community Center. The evacuation interrupted "Acquire the Fire," a Christian youth rally at Tingley Coliseum, as well as an arts and crafts fair, and cleared a casino.

Chavez said the readings of the containers were not above normal range for radiation in the atmosphere.

Martinez said the evacuation was to make sure everyone was safe.

"It was all done as a precautionary measure," he said.

Wyatt Moore, an Albuquerque pastor, said it was the first time in nine years the Christian youth rally by TeenMania was held in the Duke City. He said about 1,500 to 2,000 youths were in attendance.

"It's a big deal to us," Moore said.

Sherri Repichowski, who was attending the Zia Arts and Crafts Festival held at the fairgrounds Saturday, said she was evacuated at about 3:45 p.m. Repichowski said her car was parked near where the suspicious containers were found.

"I saw them and never thought a damn thing about them," she said. "I mean, they were just a couple of packages on the ground."

Jeanette Zufelt, who also attended the arts and crafts festival, said that at least 1,000 people were evacuated from the festival.

The Department of Energy eventually took possession of the containers and removed them from the site, Martinez said.

At about 8:15 p.m., people were allowed to return to get their vehicles from the fairgrounds and their belongings from Tingley Coliseum.

The Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration sent a team from Sandia National Laboratories to pick up the containers. They will be temporarily stored at Sandia, a spokesman said, and will be turned over to the state on Monday for disposition.

Copyright (c) 2006, Albuquerque Journal, N.M. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News.