The Wichita Eagle
December 18, 1999

Anthrax scare traced to running club


Flour used to mark a running path through downtown Wichita was mistaken for anthrax.

Emergency workers pick up yellow tape after concluding that the suspicious white substance found on city sidewalks Friday morning was flour used by a running group to mark a path through downtown Wichita the night before. (Dave Williams photo)

By Hurst Laviana
The Wichita Eagle

A group of fun-loving runners who like to mark their unconventional paths with baking flour touched off an anthrax scare that closed much of downtown Wichita on Friday morning, snarling rush hour traffic for hundreds of motorists.

Hazardous-materials crews began blocking streets around the Finney State Office Building at 6:36 a.m. after a worker called 911 to report seeing a suspicious white substance near William and Topeka.

The decision to close a four-square block area was based largely on an August 1998 anthrax scare that forced the closing of the building for two days, said Wichita Fire Department spokesman Bob Thompson.

The area -- from Main to Emporia and Douglas to William -- was closed for two hours as hazardous-materials crews searched for the source of the powder, which was found in more than 50 locations.

The streets were reopened at 8:30 a.m. after fire officials contacted members of the running group and confirmed that the substance was flour, Thompson said.

"Pillsbury, Aunt Jemima, I don't know," Thompson said. "It created a bad scare."

The scare was inadvertently caused by a group called the Hash Street Harriers, who use flour and chalk to mark running trails that are carved through nontraditional locations, Thompson said.

Part of the fun of the run is trying to follow a path set and marked by two "hares," Steve Clark, a member of the running group, said. The hares get a 15-minute head start, he said, then use flour and chalk to mark a three- to five-mile path the rest of the group must follow.

Hash Street Harrier groups around the world traditionally use flour to mark their paths because it's biodegradable, Clark said, and because it usually blows or washes away without damaging the environment.

Clark said he was out of town and didn't attend Thursday night's run, but he said no one in the group could have anticipated the flour would ever be mistaken for anthrax.

"I couldn't believe it would happen," he said after hearing the news. "I don't know what they thought. We've run downtown probably 30 times over the last three years."

Clark said he was sure no one in the group would intentionally cause a scare.

"I don't know if they even knew they were near the State Office Building," he said.

That probably won't soothe the feelings of hundreds of motorists and pedestrians who were unable to get into the area.

"Another scare? This is ridiculous," said Shanna Shahan, who was trying to walk to work at Southwind Internet Access on Market.

Suzi Lenker said she was contemplating a trip to Nebraska if her day at the state health insurance office was canceled. If she couldn't get to work, she said, she might as well get her Christmas visits started early.

"I have other things I can do," she said as she waited on English. "I have better things to do than this."

Despite the commotion, Clark said he didn't think the running group would change the way it operates.

"Maybe it will change running by that building," he said.

Brian Flint, who founded the Wichita group three years ago, said runners have gone past the State Office Building several times without drawing anyone's attention. From now on, he said, the group will alert 911 dispatchers before making a run.

The Wichita Eagle

Notes:

  1. Interesting to note that the group is referred to as the Hash Street Harriers when this paper ran a feature article on the Hash House Harriers only thirty some days previously.
  2. This isn't the end of this story, see the February 8, 2000 article.

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