- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 1, 2001

Steve Welch started the scare with a simple comment to his buddies at the firehouse: He had opened a letter at home, and white powder had spilled out.
Then he went silent, and with his silence, the scare grew.
He stood by, police say, as 14 of his fellow firefighters in Old Lycoming Township, Pa., scrambled to scrub themselves and their station house, and as health officials quarantined 40 other persons who had gathered in the adjacent social hall for an auction.
He watched silently as a hazardous-materials team dispatched from a town two hours away swarmed his home. Again, as his 9-year-old son, Stevie, and 13-year-old daughter, Lisa, were stripped naked in freezing weather and hosed down in a 4-by-10-foot plastic decontamination hut set up in the family's driveway.
Finally, Mr. Welch himself, dressed in only a beach towel, emerged from his home in the pre-dawn darkness and took the cleansing shower himself.
It wasn't until 12 hours after the initial report on Oct. 17 that Mr. Welch really came clean, police say, acknowledging there was never any powder and adding his name to the growing list of people charged nationwide with creating an anthrax hoax.
"Man, I'll tell you what: As a trained firefighter, with the knowledge that he had, that's no joke," says Bob Markle, a supervisor in the central Pennsylvania township. "As much press and as much as has gone on about all the anthrax possibilities and everything else, it just is beside me that somebody would do something like that."
Since September 11, officials across the country have responded to thousands of anthrax scares. In the past two weeks alone, postal inspectors have investigated 6,305 incidents, nearly all of them false alarms or practical jokes.
But with postal workers getting sick and deadly spores turning up in such places as congressional office buildings and the White House mail facility, even obvious anthrax jokes are being taken seriously. There seems to be no shortage of people willing to play on that fear, and no shortage of reasons for doing it.
Mr. Welch, 37, has been charged with making false reports, tampering with or fabricating evidence and criminal mischief for causing more than $5,000 in public funds to be spent. He has been released on $75,000 bail pending a Nov. 13 hearing.
The firefighter has refused to comment publicly, and his attorney did not return a call. Williamsport police Agent Stephen Sorage says Mr. Welch told him during a lengthy interview at City Hall that things just got out of hand.
Although not familiar with the Pennsylvania case, Jim Turner, president of Los Angeles-based International Assessment Services Inc., says a fireman could be watching the adulation heaped on colleagues at ground zero in New York and feeling left out.
"People who engage in those kinds of hoaxes, they do it from a sense of needing to feel important," says Mr. Turner, who is in New York developing terror contingency plans. Mr. Turner says these things usually start out fairly innocently, then just spin out of control.
"They keep lying until they reach a certain point that the story outgrows their ability to lie about it, or the facts start to fall apart," he says. "But they never really intended for it to get this far."

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide