A postal worker's family feared the worst.
A massive public safety response unfolded.
A post office closed, and 48,000 Gilbert residents didn't get their mail on Tuesday.
All because of some off-white powder that irritated the eyes, throats and lungs of three postal workers.
“In these times you never know what it is — anthrax, ricin — so we err on the side of caution,” said Capt. Robert Foster of the Gilbert Fire Department.
The substance turned out to be nothing more serious than a chemical irritant — most likely the powder from a fire extinguisher. All three workers were treated at Mesa hospitals and released by Tuesday afternoon.
As part of the incident was captured live on national television, it proved another reminder that fears of terrorism still shade American life 18 months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the deadly anthrax mailings that followed.
The anthrax attacks killed five people, including two postal workers, and resulted in the temporary closure of the U.S. Supreme Court building and other government facilities.
“That's what I first thought it was,” said Rachel Von Braun, whose husband, Richard, was one of the three workers hospitalized. “A post office was where it happened in the other cases.”
“It was scary to hear,” said Von Braun's daughter, 20-year-old Angela Loufas of Mesa.
Richard Von Braun, a six-year employee and head clerk at the post office at 225 S. Val Vista Drive, said he began having breathing problems soon after he and two other employees encountered the powder about 9 a.m. Tuesday.
Officials said the workers had been unloading packages newly arrived from the U.S. Postal Service's regional office at 48th and Van Buren streets in Phoenix.
Firefighters rinsed off the workers' hands and arms, then took them to Banner Desert and Banner Baywood medical centers. Around the same time, 100 customers and employees were evacuated from the building, and members of Mesa and Chandler's hazardous materials unit cordoned off the area.
Doctors checked Von Braun's eyes, gave him a breathing test and released him about 2 p.m. Reached later at home, Von Braun had a cough and said he still felt tightness in his chest.
“They're going to monitor me,” he said. “If it gets worse, I'll go back in.”
More than 50 firefighters from Gilbert, Mesa, Chandler and Tempe responded to the post office, forcing crews from Mesa to move into Gilbert to help provide emergency services, Foster said. In addition, U.S. postal inspectors, paramedics, Gilbert police and FBI agents were also on hand.
Foster said a battery of 28 tests conducted on what turned out to be a white powdery substance turned up negative, but FBI agents packaged the 4-by-3-foot steel cage containing the packages and took it to the state's lab for further tests.
"In today's society, we're not going to just throw caution to the wind," Foster said.
Later tests by the National Guard showed the substance came from a fire extinguisher, although the state's lab was still reviewing it Tuesday evening, Foster said. Workers at the Van Buren Street postal facility used a fire extinguisher Monday night during a small light fixture fire.
Although 47,900 postal customers did not receive their mail Tuesday, the employees who reported finding the substance should be commended for alerting authorities, said Donna Spini, customer relations coordinator for the U.S. Postal Service.
“The employees did exactly what they were supposed to do. They protected themselves and their customers, so false alarms don't get us frustrated," Spini said.
Customers in the 85233, 85234 and 85296 ZIP codes will receive two days’
worth of mail today, Spini said.
If the mail was found to have a substance on it, U.S. postal inspector Robert Maes said it would be decontaminated, packaged and delivered with an explanatory note.
Maes said the U.S. Postal Service has been the victim of thousands of hoaxes and false alarms since October 2001.
Crushed Life Savers candies, cake mixes and laundry detergent have all resulted in emergency responses, Maes said. But the potential danger of bioterrorism warrants the careful approach to such incidents, he said. “Our No. 1 priority is that our employees go home at the end of the day,” Maes said. “Over the last year and a half, we've learned a lot.”