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Tests turn up nothing at Illinois Air Force base where 3 were sickened while handling mail
MASCOUTAH, Ill. (AP) ' Environmental tests at an Air Force base in southern Illinois failed to pinpoint what caused three people to fall sick while handling mail Wednesday, the Air Force said.
Two workers for the U.S. Postal Service and an Air Force serviceman at Scott Air Force Base developed respiratory or skin reactions around 9 a.m. in reaction to something in the mail room, according to base commander Col. Michael Hornitschek. The incident led to the evacuation of parts of the facility.
The Air Force issued a news release Wednesday night saying that environmental tests turned up "nothing of significance" at the mail center. Base spokeswoman Karen Petitt told The Associated Press that it's possible whatever sickened the three people had dissipated by the time tests were conducted.
U.S. Postal Service inspectors are continuing to investigate the cause of the adverse reactions and the mail facility will remain closed Thursday, the Air Force said.
"Our personnel are safe and the buildings in which they work have been declared safe and we will proceed with normal business tomorrow," Hornitschek said in a statement.
Hornitschek told reporters earlier that he didn't believe there was ever any threat to the local community and that it's possible the package could have been a "very benign shipment someone had sent (and that) something had spilled or broke." However, he stopped short of assuring that it wasn't a deliberate act.
He offered no details about the package or what material was inside.
Hornitschek said hazardous materials specialists had isolated the suspicious package to one specific bin. But he could not say whether that bin contained mail that was arriving or was meant to be sent from the base.
Hornitschek, appearing relaxed, said he believed the matter was "absolutely not" connected to the pending 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"We view this as an isolated incident that could have happened any particular day in any particular mail center" in the Air Force, Hornitschek said.
The colonel said the three injured people were treated then released from a hospital in Belleville, Ill. Thirteen people were decontaminated as a precaution on the base. Another person sought medical attention at an on-base health center and was cleared.
The incident prompted precautionary evacuations of the base's education center, bowling alley and other services near the mail center. Hornitschek said about 100 people were evacuated. The base is outside Mascoutah, Ill., about 25 miles east of St. Louis.
The base was never closed and its security level remained unchanged throughout the day.
Still, the incident prompted some concern at the base. Alarms blared, with a voice over a loud speaker warning that it was not an exercise. Hazardous material trucks, firefighters and ambulances hurried to the scene.
Hornitschek said as recently as last week the base underwent training responding to conditions similar to what happened Wednesday.
Master Sgt. Jerome Baysmore said "several" firefighters at the base were overcome by heat and treated by on-base medics. He did not know how many. The incident happened on a day when temperatures reached well into the 90s.
The air base serves as a global mobility and transportation hub for the Defense Department. The base is home to the U.S. Transportation Command, Air Mobility Command, the 618th Air and Space Operations Center and Air Force Network Integration Center. It is also one of four bases in the Air Force to house both a Reserve unit ' the 932nd Airlift Wing ' and an Air National Guard unit ' the 126th Air Refueling Wing.
Hornitschek said 10,000 to 12,000 people are on the base on a given day.
Associated Press writers Karen Hawkins in Chicago and Jim Salter in St. Louis contributed to this report.