Once again -- what, the last time was just in May? -- a bomb threat had Humboldt State University all bound up and tense last week as men and women huddled in bright vests near the danger zone and others -- campus security and campus housing staff hastily stuffed into yet more bright vests -- re-routed passersby.
This time the scene of the suspected bomb was in the library parking lot, where around half past 4 p.m. last Tuesday, Sept. 23, somebody had found something in front of the parked cars that looked awfully like a pipe bomb and called the campus police to report it, said HSU P.R. guy Frank Whitlatch. Whitlatch was at the scene, dealing with the small pack of reporters who had either heard of the threat on the scanner or happened to pass by L.K. Wood and saw it clogged by fire engines and police cars, with ambulances arriving all-a-siren.
By 6 p.m., a suited-up guy had taken a gander at the thing. Not long after, the Incident Commander, HSU Police Chief Tom Dewey, announce loudly to onlookers and emergency personnel: "There may be a small banging noise."
Another official yelled: "Fire in the hole!"
And then there was a small banging noise, followed by the wan honking of a car alarm. Child's play.
Or was it? Whitlatch said the team from the Humboldt County Sheriff's bomb squad had just fired a "small, disintegrating projectile" at the suspected pipe bomb, and he'd maybe know within a half-hour or so what the verdict was: a fake, or the real deal?
So people waited, and watched. Mostly, they were people whose cars were parked where the device was found. One of them, John Moor, who teaches at Alice Birney Elementary School in Eureka, had just gotten out of a meeting on campus of the Elementary Education Partnership Council. He'd parked in the lot at 4, gone to the meeting, and when he got out the lot was taped off.
"It's just an annoyance," he said. "Whoever did it, whatever they were trying to accomplish, it's just been an inconvenience for us. I don't see a lot of people scared, so, if that's what they were trying to accomplish, it didn't work."
Debbie Prevost sat on a planter, watching the scene. She's a retired elementary teacher who now trains student teachers part-time for HSU, and she had been at the same education meeting as Moor. Her car also was trapped in the lot by the bomb threat.
"So, I'm just stuck here," she said. "I can't go home."
Student Tony Snow, sitting nearby on another planter, joked, "It's a common complaint, 'There's nothing to do here.' What are you talking about? There's excitement everywhere." A moment passed, then he said, "If something actually blows up, don't quote me on that. That would be terrible."
Prevost said she lives in Fortuna, and she was worrying about her husband.
"I'm kinda feeling bummed, my poor husband's at home and he just had knee surgery, so he can't get around well to fix himself dinner," she said. Then added: "I remember in the '60s, I worked at a high school when I was in college, and kids would call in saying there was a bomb. I can remember evacuating three times."
Barbara Nowak, a social work professor who'd been in a faculty senate meeting when she heard there was a bomb threat, sat on another planter, hunched and miserable looking.
"I'm frozen solid," she said. "I'm parked right in the middle of that parking lot."
Was she worried?
"Only for my poor dog that's been sitting at home since 7 a.m. this morning, and I didn't go home midday like I usually do," Nowak said. "So, he's probably sitting on the couch with his legs crossed."
An older gent in a classic professery tweed jacket walked up from the edge of the taped-off perimeter saying, "Guess it's the real deal!"
The swarm of onlookers grew and shrank, grew and shrank, with the core of people waiting to get to their cars hanging in there. Members of various local enforcement scoured the lot or stood around talking.
"Are they wanding all the cars?" a waiting woman asked an official-type. "I just got back from living in a foreign country where they have regular bomb threats."
Finally, Whitlatch got the verdict from the incident commander, and relayed it to us: "It was not explosive," he said. In other words, a fake. "But, it does appear it was deliberately constructed to look like a pipe bomb, and that it was deliberately placed there."
All of the other cars were checked, just to be safe.
A week later, the investigation into who set the fake bomb continued. This Monday, UPD Chief Dewey said his department has received some useful leads, but not enough to solve the crime.
Dewey said this incident was far different from the May incident when suspicious-looking boxes placed about campus triggered a bomb-threat response. That mystery was solved when three students fessed up that the boxes were art pieces.
"The construction of those boxes and the behavior of those students was less concerning than this incident," said Dewey.
The 12-inch long fake pipe bomb in this latest incident looked a lot like a real pipe bomb that exploded in March 1999 outside a student study area on the edge of campus, Dewey said.
"That did considerable damage," he said.
No suspects were ever identified in that incident, despite an investigation.