It’s been a busy day (Thursday) for Des Moines firefighters who first were called out about mid-morning to a smoky fire in the building housing the Polk County Jail.
Fire department spokesman Tony Merrill says it turned out to be some kind of electrical fire, near the top of the building. “We know it was generated in the top of the elevator shaft,” Merrill says. “It created quite a bit of smoke…but it was not a huge ordeal.” It was an electrical fire so fire fighters had to carry dry chemical extinguishers all the way up to the top of the building.
Before they could pack up their gear and go back to the station, there was a call from the Polk County Courthouse across the street from the jail. “Some of the crews didn’t even leave the scene, they just walked across the street,” Merrill says.
This, however, was a Haz-Mat call for some kind of white powder in the building. Merrill says there was no return address on the envelope, and nothing inside the envelope except a powdery substance. Crews went in, sealed off the area and briefly quarantined several dozen workers in the building. They did some preliminary tests inside on the substance, brought it out and did some more tests, then handed it over to the Des Moines police.
They’ll do more tests and investigate the case as a “malicious event.” The tests the Haz-Mat crews did in the field indicated a “benign substance” with no hazard associated with it, but the local police lab will do more tests for identification purposes — and for evidence.
The building was reopened to workers and the public. Merrill stresses that the Haz-Mat crew handled the case as if it did involve some dangerous substance. He says you never know when a substance may be benign or one that may cause serious injuries. “They did all the stuff that they should have,” he says.
Other fire and law-enforcement agencies in the region frequently call in Des Moines Haz-Mat crews when they need a site isolated or a substance tested, and Merrill admits: “Unfortunately we have a lot of experience.”