ELLSWORTH, Maine — About 30 people were evacuated from a bank processing facility Thursday morning after an employee found a powdery substance in an envelope she opened.
The discovery drew rapid response teams from around the state to the Bar Harbor Bank and Trust operations center on Avery Lane not far from Route 3 in Ellsworth. Employees waited throughout most of the afternoon to learn whether the substance in the envelope posed a danger.
Several tests conducted at the scene by members of the Maine National Guard Civil Support Team out of Waterville determined that there were no hazardous materials in the white powder.
The employee, who was not identified, opened the envelope just before 11 a.m. Crews, including the hazmat team from the Ellsworth Fire Department responded quickly and evacuated the building.
The employee said she felt a burning sensation on her hand and as a precaution was taken to Maine Coast Memorial Hospital for treatment, according to Ellsworth Deputy Fire Chief Richard Tupper.
Firefighters evacuated the building and as a precaution separated employees into two groups, with one containing five workers who were nearby when the envelope was opened. The employees remained on the grounds inside an area cordoned off with caution tape throughout the afternoon.
“We want to keep them all in one location until we know what we are dealing with,” Tupper said before noon. “We want to monitor them. This is all precautionary.”
Tupper said officials believed there was only one envelope involved and no one was making any assumptions about what the substance might be.
Hazardous materials specialists from the Orono-Old Town Regional Response Team, Waterville-based Maine National Guard Civil Support Team, and Maine Department of Environmental Protection all were called to the scene during the day.
A team, wearing protective suits and air packs, entered the building at about 2:45 p.m. and returned about 45 minutes later, having retrieved samples of the powder.
“They got to the envelope and they did a swab collection,” Tupper said. “They tested that and found no hazardous materials. They took a second sample to the CST mobile lab and that also had negative results.”
The CST team also conducted a third, heat test that they started at the scene and completed as they traveled back to Waterville. According to Mike Hangge, the hazmat team leader at the Ellsworth Fire Department, the results from that test also came back negative.
Maine State Police Sgt. Alden Bustard took another sample to the state crime lab in Augusta where additional tests will be conducted in an effort to determine what the substance is.
Once officials determined that the powder was not hazardous, they allowed employees to leave the scene. Initially, there was concern about allowing them back into the building. But once hazmat teams had sealed the room where the envelope was opened, the employees were allowed in to retrieve personal belongings including their car keys.
“It’s been a long day for them,” said Bar Harbor Bank and Trust president Joe Murphy, who had spent most of the afternoon outside the police emergency line. “It’s been hard for them to stand around and wait to be told they were OK. But they took it in stride.”
Most employees quickly left the site around 5:30 p.m. without talking to reporters. Nina Allen, who walked off the site to meet her husband, said, “It feels good to go.”
“There were a lot of emotions going on there,” Allen said. Mostly, she said people were hungry and thirsty.
Murphy said they were all “very appreciative” of the efforts to make sure they were safe.
“I’m impressed and amazed that in a small town like this, all of this can be brought to bear,” he said.
Fire Department spokesman Gary Fortier also said the woman who had opened the envelope “had no symptoms and appeared to be fine.” She released from the hospital late Thursday afternoon after she had been checked, he said.
As a precaution, the woman’s clothes were kept for additional testing if necessary, Fortier said.
Tupper said earlier that officials did not evacuate any other buildings on Avery Lane or the Lowe’s located several hundred feet away because they did not believe anyone else was in immediate danger.
Once the substance had been tested, officers entered the building to retrieve evidence. Ellsworth police Officer Chad Wilmot said the suspicious legal-size envelope did have a return address on it and the residents at that address have been contacted.
Because it is an ongoing investigation, Wilmot did not release the name associated with the address, but said no arrests have been made. It is still very early in the investigation, Wilmot said. Since the substance was mailed to the bank, he said, this could be considered a federal case.
“That hasn’t been determined yet,” Wilmot said.
An FBI representative was on the scene Thursday afternoon, but declined to discuss the incident.
Ellsworth firefighters also set up a decontamination area outside the building and a hazmat team from the Mount Desert Fire Department served as a decontamination crew for the specialists who entered the building. All the team members were scrubbed down in the decontamination area after they left the building with some samples at about 3:30 p.m.
Tupper praised the bank employees and thanked them for their patience during the ordeal. Although it sometimes seemed that things moved slowly, Ralph Pinkham, director of the Hancock County Emergency Management Agency said the effort went smoothly.
“We were being very careful and going through all our protocols before entry. We wanted to make it safe for everyone,” Pinkham said. “We’re fortunate that we don’t have to do this a lot, but with our operations and the training we do, it’s not that difficult for us. Because of the training we do constantly, all of these agencies know how to work with each other. We’re prepared to do this.”