A biohazard scare caused chaos in Toronto's downtown yesterday and disrupted work in Ontario government offices. It was the fourth such incident in Canada in less than two months.
This latest false alarm occurred on a particularly large and troublesome scale: It left Torontonians with snarled traffic, preoccupied hundreds of emergency personnel and forced the removal of nearly 4,000 employees from three government buildings.
It was all because of three envelopes containing a mysterious granular substance and one anonymous note said to have posed the question: "How do you like anthrax?"
The incident comes on the heels of episodes in Victoria, Ottawa and Toronto at the end of January, which also involved strange packages bearing the threat of deadly biological substances.
Toronto's associate medical officer of health, Rita Shahin, spent yesterday shuttling between the buildings in Toronto's downtown core to interview quarantined employees.
"In the U.S., they have significantly more of this nature of hoax, as many as four a day."
The incident started at 900 Bay St. at 10:40 a.m. on the 14th floor, when a woman employee of the provincial Education Ministry's communications branch opened a standard letter-sized envelope which contained a grey powder and a note with the question about anthrax.
It was the second time in two months that the sprawling Bay Street government buildings, home to many ministries and ministers' offices, have been targeted.
Toronto police were called, and within minutes brigades of emergency personnel: haz-mat (hazadous materials), decontamination crews, emergency task force explosive-disposal units, fire department pumpers and hook-and-ladder trucks, filled Bay Street, and a block of the main artery was closed to traffic.
Half an hour later, a similar envelope was found at 400 University Avenue, home to Ontario's deputy minister of citizenship, culture and recreation, causing 14 floors of Zurich Insurance and a chunk of the southbound avenue out front to be closed.
Three hours later, a third envelope was discovered at Coroner's Court on Grosvenor Street, around the corner from 900 Bay, interrupting the highly publicized inquest into the starvation death of newborn Jordan Heikamp.
The result: an expensive, traffic-snarling convoy of emergency vehicles between three buildings in the downtown core over a four-hour stretch that left displaced employees shaken and frustrated.
"Obviously the amount of resources used are tremendous," Toronto Police spokesman Rob Knapper said yesterday. "But how can it be an overreaction? . . . Safety is the issue."
After three hours of waiting outside across the street from her building, visibly pregnant Kate Acs, a senior policy analyst with the Education Ministry, sent 12 of her staff home but doggedly waited out the incident herself.
Originally, entire floors were quarantined in the affected buildings and employees thought to have been in contact with the substance were not allowed out of the buildings.
"There were only about 10 people that had some real exposure at all, but we had the names of another 30 people passing through areas where the envelopes came," Dr. Shahin said.
By late afternoon, public-health officials had determined the whole thing was a hoax.
"We got preliminary results and there are no bacterial substances in the envelopes," Dr. Shahin said late in the afternoon. Viral substances were also ruled out, she said.
Last night, public-health officials contacted everyone who was originally quarantined to allay their fears.