Building evacuated in Aberdeen after Congressional staffers find suspicious envelopes

Three envelopes without return addresses were sent to Aberdeen offices of South Dakota's congressional delegation, causing emergency officials to block off streets and a hazardous materials team to investigate Friday.

 About 20 people were evacuated from the US Bank building at 320 S. First St., where Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., and Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., each have an office, after envelopes were found around 1 p.m., said Aberdeen Fire and Rescue Chief Kevin VanMeter. A third envelope was found in Republican Rep. Kristi Noem's office in the Capitol Theatre Building at 415 S. Main St. All of the envelopes had stamps and had been mailed, he said.

 Kate Cinchy, press secretary for Johnson, said in an email that a tea bag was in the envelope found at the office of South Dakota's senior senator. All of Johnson's Aberdeen staffers were OK, Cinchy said.

 In the past, she said, other members of Congress have been sent tea bags from tea party supporters.

 Thune's office was the first to note the envelope and call authorities, Cinchy said.

 "An unidentified substance was found in an envelope," VanMeter said Friday afternoon. "We're treating it especially seriously in light of the recent ricin scare."

 On April 17, an envelope that was addressed to President Barack Obama was found that tested positive for ricin, a highly poisonous substance.

 None of the people who were evacuated reported any injuries or illness, but they were all kept at the scene until the possibility of a hazardous substance was ruled out,  VanMeter said.

 The envelope with the tea bag was already opened when authorities arrived at the office. The tea bag inside the envelope was not opened, VanMeter said. The envelopes at Thune and Noem's offices were unopened, he said.

 On-site testing of the tea bag and the exterior of the other two envelopes did not show any biological hazards, he said.

 The tea bag and the envelopes were sealed in a drum and turned over to the Aberdeen Police Department, VanMeter said. The drum will be sent to the state Department of Health in Pierre for further testing, said Capt. Dave McNeil of the police department. The incident is under investigation by the police, the state Division of Criminal investigation and the state Department of Homeland Security, McNeil said.

 The people who were evacuated said they were asked by police not to comment on the situation.

 Kasie Kinzler, who works in an office on the fifth floor of the Capitol Building, a few stories above Noem's office, said she could see the emergency teams mobilizing.

 Kinzler said she started taking photos from her office window and tried to figure out why so many firefighters and police officers were there.

 Police closed off the entire block around US Bank building, which includes Fourth Avenue Southwest, Third Avenue Southwest and South First Street, for about two hours while Aberdeen Fire and Rescue hazardous materials teams entered the building.

  A mobile command center was set up across the street from US Bank by the Brown County Emergency Management Office to coordinate all the responders, which included firefighters, police officers, paramedics and emergency management.

 A hazardous materials decontamination tent was set up on Fourth Avenue Southwest across from the Dacotah Bank parking lot.

 MaKayla Perryman, who was bartending at the Wild Oats Sports Bar and Grill on the corner of South Main Street and Fourth Avenue Southwest, didn't know what to think when she saw the hazmat team setting up.

 "I looked outside, and there were fire trucks and cop cars all over," Perryman said. "It was kind of scary because we had no idea what was going on."

 A four-person team went into the east entrance of the US Bank building at about 2:25 p.m. to retrieve the envelopes, and people were allowed back into the building about 3 p.m.