Beer Box Bomb Causes Scare at U. Mass.

The Massachusetts State Police bomb squad determined that a suspected explosive device found in Herter Hall at the University of Massachusetts Friday morning was not a threat.

"Everything is fine and safe on campus," University of Massachusetts spokesman Ed Blaguszewski said in a press conference shortly after 9 a.m. this morning as the University lifted its campus security alert.

After the discovery was reported around 5:20 a.m., Herter Hall and the surrounding buildings were evacuated and about 100 custodians and other staff gathered in Physical Plant.

Students, faculty and staff received an e-mail alert at 6:26 a.m. which announced the University would delay opening, and classes were cancelled until 11 a.m. W.E.B. DuBois Library was also evacuated just before 6 a.m. and remained closed until classes began.

A potential security threat like this morning's has not happened in recent memory, Blaguszewski said at the press conference.

When a custodian turned on the lights in room 112 of Herter Hall shortly after he arrived at 5 a.m., he found an empty 30-rack with a battery outside and wires running inside, said Glynn Ellis, the supervisor for buildings and grounds who was on duty in Herter this morning.

"He just thought that it was trash -- he was going to grab it until he saw the wire sticking out," Ellis said. "It had a note that said, 'If this is moved it will explode.' It looked a little too sophisticated to be a standard joke."

Ellis immediately ordered custodians to evacuate the building and called campus police. The UMass Police Department summoned the Amherst Fire Department, which called in the state police bomb squad.

The UMPD and local town authorities, including the Amherst Fire Department, set up a command post and established a security perimeter around Herter Hall until the arrival of the state police bomb squad, blocking off the area from Berkshire House to the Isenberg School of Management.

"They had cruisers everywhere and weren't letting anyone into this block," Ellis said.

Authorities assessed the situation and searched surrounding buildings before determining that the suspicious object was not an explosive device.

"Unofficially, I was told that it was a very sophisticated hoax," Ellis said. "There was a giant process that went into figuring that out, which is really the aggravating thing here, because it's not funny. It's damn scary."

Campus police also decided to evacuate UMass's 26-story library when they arrived at 6:13 a.m. to find a handful of people and a message on a whiteboard about George W. Bush., said Blaguszewski.

The message read, "Bush blew up the Twin Towers" and "Key to everything is Building 7," perhaps a reference to a smaller skyscraper across from the World Trade Center that also collapsed on Sept. 11, 2001 and is shrouded in conspiracy theories.

Evacuating the building was a precaution, according to Blaguszewski, and campus police concluded shortly that the writing was unrelated to the bomb scare.

"At that point, because all the facts weren't known, it was the prudent thing to do, just in case there was a connection," he said.

"Kids write on that board every day," said Lorraine Lapointe, a building monitor supervisor at the library. "They've been writing stuff about Sept. 11 ever since Sept. 11."

The library was evacuated in about five minutes, according to Terry Warner, assistant director of administrative services at the library.

"I don't think other than fire evacuations we've ever had anything of this nature," said Warner of the library evacuation.

At 10:45 a.m., a few dozen students were waiting outside the doors of the library, which reopened at 11 a.m.

Blaguszweski said the University emergency protocols, alerting students, faculty and staff of the situation via e-mail and the UMass Web site had been successfully followed.

"It's not crowded on campus this morning," he said at the press conference, praising the speed at which authorities reacted to the potential threat. "We're pretty well prepared [for this]. Can we always learn? Absolutely."

According to Blaguszweski, the University has been enhancing its emergency preparedness and campus alert system over the past six months since the Virginia Tech tragedy.

Donald Robinson, who is responsible for emergency management on the UMass campus, said this morning's scare highlighted important aspects of crisis preparedness on which the University can improve.

"We know that the UMass homepage was getting so many hits that it was difficult for people to access it, so we want to work with OIT [Office of Information Technologies] to see what possibly could be done to improve that situation," he said.

UMass is also looking at a voluntary text messaging alert system, outdoor sirens, and a grappler at the bottom of the screen for the UMass TV system.

"Some of these things were already in the works. This enforced the need to continue down this road," he said.

Ellis, who first called the police, was impressed with the speedy response.

"We have a lot of dedicated employees who are willing to be here in half an hour to make sure students are safe," he said. "Students should know that there's a lot of people who want to make sure they're safe," he added, noting that Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Michael Gargano had arrived within 30 minutes in his track pants.

Police are conducting an ongoing investigation of the device and are following up on several leads, Blaguszewski said this morning. Whether the UMPD would lead the investigation was not yet known.

(C) 2007 Massachusetts Daily Collegian via U-WIRE