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Courage always wins out over cowardice

I’ve been doing this job for 35 years now. I’ve had a wealth of experiences – good and bad. I’ve covered thousands of stories – uplifting and heartbreaking. My friends – some younger than me – are retiring. Not me. This job gets into your blood. It is a calling as much as it is a career. I thought I had seen it all until last Thursday. I eyed the oddly-addressed letter warily. But, it was similar in appearance to others received in recent months, so I cut into it. As I pulled the letter out of the envelope, my hands got covered in white powder. I’m sure the first words out of my mouth were expletives as I rushed to wash up. I snatched up my cell phone and called sheriff Brad White who set in motion the law enforcement response. Someone in the office located some tweezers. I held the letter with them and emptied the rest of the powder into a box lined with colored construction paper. We photographed the letter, envelope and powder. I instinctively knew we would not see them again and wanted a record. By that time, we had been ordered out of the building. We pulled a picnic table under a shade tree in the parking lot, thinking we wouldn’t be there long. That thinking changed when we watched the roadblocks erected on Greenwood Street. Sgt. Chris Webster of the sheriff’s office and husband of our office manager and circulation director Tasha Webster came to be with his bride and was quarantined with the rest of us. We listened in on the traffic on his radio because we left our scanners inside. We got periodic briefings via cell phone from Captain Craig Cooper of the BPD. Ever faithful Rachel McDaniel of the Pike County Journal Reporter kept the public informed on the web. We watched evacuation around us. We paced. Some smoked. A GBI agent responded but her superiors decided to defer to the FBI. Three FBI agents arrived at the roadblocks including the special agents in charge of both the Atlanta and Macon offices. They were cool, calm and professional. While the rest of us were pouring sweat, they seemed to have their own inner air conditioning units. The entire Narcotics Task Force arrived and was capable of testing the white powder but did not have the appropriate protective gear. That’s something we intend to rectify and you can read more about it in this issue. The FBI summoned a hazmat team from Robins AFB but it was tied up. They then turned to the Macon-Bibb Fire Department which responded. Meanwhile, we were thirsty and hungry. Capt. Cooper brought water and Laura later got burgers and pizza. Officers would walk them inside the perimeter and Webster would go get them. Meanwhile, we tried to stay loose. I furtively checked my arms for symptoms but tried to laugh and cut up to keep spirits high. It was a trying time. We all did phone interviews with the FBI which, interestingly, offered counseling for post traumatic stress syndrome. After several hours, the hazmat team arrived and set up a shower in the road. If the powder tested toxic, we would wash in it and load into ambulances for a trip to the Medical Center of Central Georgia for treatment. We always joke that working at the newspaper provides free parking, a free paper and all the excitement you can stand. The brave folks on our staff kept a stiff upper lip through the ordeal but I could tell they drew the line at showering in the street. Finally, the all clear was sounded. The powder was baking soda. The sighs of relief were audible. The letter was sent by a coward – a person without the intestinal fortitude to argue a point in person, face-to-face. Such cowardice is rampant in the internet age. Let it be known that Missy Ware, Tasha Webster, Pam Stephens, Angela Bagwell, Sherri Ellington, Nolan George, Cathy Slegl, Sgt. Webster, Laura and I were worried but we didn’t cower. Less than 24 hours later we got another letter from the same fool who also apparently sent one to the federal building in Atlanta. We sealed it up, took it outside, called the cops and went about our work. Chemical threats are just part of the job description here now and we, like you, wonder what will happen next. Once again, courage won out over cowardice. It always has and it always will! On a personal note: We send out our grateful thanks to everyone on the emergency response teams for their professionalism. We also apologize to those who were kept from their homes, businesses and doctors appointments during the threat. Thanks from all of us here at your hometown newspaper. Walter Geiger is editor and publisher of the Herald Gazette.

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