By Jeanne Sager
MONTICELLO April 14, 2006 When the door was finally unlocked on Tara Schums office, she couldnt breathe.
The clerk was greeted by a team of emergency workers in HazMat suits telling her the Lawrence H. Cooke Courthouse in Monticello was on lockdown.
As Schums co-worker, fellow Clerk of the Court Victoria Fuller, went through the mail Tuesday morning, she opened an envelope from the Woodbourne Correctional Facility addressed, simply, to the Lawrence H. Cooke Courthouse.
As she slit through the paper, white powder began to leak out.
Fuller, unsure what was inside, immediately left the room, envelope in hand, to find boss Sarah Katzman, deputy chief clerk.
The women headed across the hall to the office of Sergeant Jennifer Peterson, court security.
Thats when the call went out there was a possible anthrax scare at the county courthouse.
Fuller, Katzman and Peterson were all locked in the sergeants office while security returned to the clerks office, locking Schum inside alone.
I didnt even know it was opened, Schum said. I was locked in our office according to procedure.
But I didnt know what was going on, so I just kept working, she said. I tried to look outside the window, but I guess in an effort not to scare me, they tried not to say too much.
She didnt get scared, she said, until the door was unlocked and a HazMat crew escorted her out of the office, moving in to secure the area where the envelope had been opened.
I couldnt breathe not because of anthrax but because I was scared, she recalled. They tried to calm me down, telling me it was probably just talc.
Schum was taken out into the lobby where she saw a big panic.
In reality, she said the emergency officials seemed to have everything under control, but she was alone the other three women were still locked in the court security office, and the remainder of the courthouse workers had been instructed to remain in their offices as well.
Eventually, Schum was taken into the bathroom of the court library and instructed to disrobe.
She was given a HazMat suit to put on, and her clothes were taken away to be tested for anthrax.
Schum was rejoined by the other women all of whom had been given similar orders to change into HazMat suits and escorted out of the courthouse.
They were taken by MobileMedic Ambulance to Catskill Regional Medical Center in Harris.
A decontamination unit had been set up outside the entrance to the emergency room, and the women were instructed this time to remove their suits to shower.
Using cold water and soap Schum compared to Comet, the women were decontaminated then examined by medical personnel.
It wasnt exactly a spa experience, Schum said with a laugh. It was pretty cold!
But everyone at the hospital, they hadnt done it before I dont think, so they were trying their best to be accommodating, she said. They gave us something to eat once we were through there.
The women were instructed to visit their own physicians after being released from the hospitals decontamination process.
Schum said she stopped at her primary care physicians office Wednesday morning and received a prescription for an antibiotic in case tests came back positive.
That afternoon the tests did come back and they were negative for anthrax, although more tests are being done to determine exactly what the substance is (which means the women have yet to get their clothing back).
Schum said she didnt really expect the tests to be positive.
I had thought the whole time that it was from an inmate inside the correctional facility, she explained. We were pretty confident an inmate wouldnt have access to anthrax.
I didnt even realize how tense I was until I woke up the next morning and my muscles ached, she said.
But Wednesday morning, Schum and her co-workers were back at work going about their usual routine.
Schum said there are changes down the pike in the way mail is handled at the courthouse.