BALTIMORE — Two packages about the size of small books ignited and released a sulphur-like smell when they were opened Thursday at Maryland state government buildings 20 miles apart, slightly burning the fingers of two employees. One of the parcels was addressed to Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley.
The fiery devices, one found in Hanover, another in Annapolis, caused the evacuation of mailrooms at government offices across Maryland. Two other suspicious packages were discovered in the distress, though one was found to be a toner cartridge; the other laptop batteries.
The opening of the dangerous packages caused the incendiary device inside to activate, State Fire Marshal William Barnard said.
"When both packages were opened there was a reaction that caused a flash of fire, a brief flash of fire, smoke and a smell," state police spokesman Greg Shipley said. "This is not to be compared with a significant explosion that you think of when you say that word."
Explosive material wasn't found in either package that ignited, Barnard said. When one was opened, it produced a "puff of smoke and a sulphur-type smell, like if you would strike a match." The employee dropped that package on the floor and called 911.
The Annapolis package, addressed in typeface to the recently re-elected governor adorned with holiday stamps, was opened first around 12:30 p.m. at the Jeffrey Building, where mail for O'Malley's office is routinely checked. The building is just blocks from the governor's office, which is inside the State House in downtown.
That package contained a message from a disgruntled person, a government official familiar with the investigation told The Associated Press. It had a zipper feature and when ripped open, a "flame popped out." The official asked for anonymity because the person was not authorized to speak about the ongoing investigation.
The Hanover package had a return address, though officials wouldn't divulge it, and was delivered through the U.S. Postal Office, Barnard said.
U.S. Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md., told WJZ-TV in Baltimore that a return address on one of the packages turned out to be a Washington parking lot.
"This is what we consider, in my opinion, a lone wolf situation," said Ruppersberger, who serves on the House Intelligence Committee. "This is an individual who is deranged and they wanted to make a statement, and this is how they did it."
Shipley couldn't confirm any information on return addresses on the packages.
One package was addressed to the state Transportation Department and was unraveled about 15 minutes later at the agency's building in Hanover, near Baltimore's airport. The employee who burned his fingers at the transportation agency building was taken to a hospital, as were three other people who were concerned because they were near the package when it was opened.
Cate Conroy, acting director of outreach and advocacy for the Veterans Affairs Department, where the governor's mailroom is housed, was working there when the first package was opened. She said employees calmly left while reports of smoke were investigated.
"It happened quite quietly, actually," Conroy said, adding that employees were allowed back into the building a few hours later.
The FBI's joint terrorism task force was assisting in the investigation. A U.S. Homeland Security Department official said the department was aware of the incidents and monitoring them. One of the packages would most likely be taken to an FBI lab at Quantico, Va., to be examined, the state fire marshal said.
The third suspicious package was discovered about 3:45 p.m. at the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene headquarters in Baltimore, after its mailroom had been quarantined.
David Paulson, a health department spokesman, said a package matched the description of the other two. It was later found to be computer laptop batteries.
The fourth package was found at a Baltimore courthouse and was an ink cartridge.
Patrick Moran, director of the state workers union AFSCME-Maryland, said the devices were an attempt to get attention.
"Whomever is doing this obviously needs to be stopped because their targets are people who are doing hard work every day to ensure that the people of Maryland have the services they need," Moran said.
In neighboring Delaware, Detective Britt Davis, a spokesman for the Delaware Capitol Police, said police were operating with raised awareness, but they were not doing much differently.
New Jersey state police said they had notified agencies across the state about what had happened, saying it was part of normal protocol when such incidents occur. The New Jersey agencies were advised to be "extra vigilant" in handling mail and packages.
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