The Mahoning County HazMat team was called to two fire departments this week when envelopes containing a granular substance arrived at the stations, only to learn the substance was sand sent by the Sebring fire chief.
Sebring Fire Chief James Cannell said each year when he goes to the beach on vacation, he sends his friends a little package of sand.
“I’ve done this for years. I go to Ocean City, Md., and I send the sand back. They get this envelope, the sand falls on their desk, and they think of me,” he said.
Austintown and Canfield fire officials received the sand, and knowing of the tradition, they didn’t think anything was amiss.
But when the envelopes arrived Monday at the Boardman Fire Department’s and Western Reserve Joint Fire District’s main stations addressed to the chief, recipients were wary.
The envelopes did not list a return address and had no letter of explanation — just the sand.
Western Reserve Joint Fire District Fire Chief David C. Comstock Jr. said those things made the envelope suspect, including discovering that Boardman received an envelope as well.
“[Boardman Fire Chief] George [Brown] and I were newly added guys to the chiefs’ list this year, but there was no return address and no note. So the question asked by us was: What do Boardman and Poland have in common? It was dated July 10, so to put things in perspective that was mailed right after we each had the president visit,” Comstock said.
In addition, the letter had an out-of-state postal code.
Comstock called a member of the HazMat team to seek advice and was told HazMat would be out to test the substance.
Meanwhile, in Boardman, firefighters followed protocol and called police, who began coordinating a response with the postal inspection service. Any fire personnel who came in contact with the substance had to remain on station, per HatMat’s instruction, according to police reports.
About an hour after the letters were opened, fire officials in Boardman and Poland contacted colleagues in other departments and learned of Cannell’s tradition.
Comstock said he called Cannell who verified that he sent the letter and that the substance was sand.
“The bottom line is it was a combination of the timing and the fact it was from the East Coast. Everything sort of compounded,” Comstock said.
Boardman Township Administrator Jason Loree said all township employees followed protocol, and he said the incident served as a training exercise for what to do in that situation.
“You have to take that situation seriously. If you write it off and something happens, you’re liable,” he said. “...People prior [to the 2001 anthrax attacks] weren’t thinking of it. We take it very seriously.”
Comstock said one good outcome of the incident was seeing the quick and effective response of local safety services.
“Within a relatively quick period, people were able to mobilize. Had it been something other than sand, I felt that the county and the state and federal governments would have handled it well,” Comstock said.
Cannell, who said he was questioned by the FBI about the incident, said he regrets sending the sand without an explanation.
“I set the big bells and alarms off, which I feel very bad about. ...I’m embarrassed that I did it,” Cannell said.
“I won’t do it any more. Holy smokes, I’m a fire chief myself. And I understand now, but at the time, I didn’t understand. Things have changed today,” said the 68-year-old chief.