AUSTIN, TEXAS – University of Texas officials were defending their decision to wait more than an hour before evacuating due to a bomb threat, one of three such incidents reported at U.S. college campuses in a span of just a few hours.
Tens of thousands urgently heeded evacuation warnings Friday amid the threats at the University of Texas at Austin, University of North Dakota in Fargo and much-smaller Hiram College in northeast Ohio.
The Texas school received the first threat around 8:35 a.m. from a man claiming to belong to al-Qaida, officials said. The caller claimed bombs placed throughout campus would go off in 90 minutes, but administrators waited more than an hour before blaring sirens on the campus of 50,000 students and telling them to immediately “get as far away as possible” in emergency text messages.
Authorities said they started searching buildings for explosives before the alert was issued.
“It’s easy to make a phone call … the first thing we needed to do was evaluate,” UT President Bill Powers said. “If the threat had been for something to go off in five minutes, then you don’t have the time to evaluate, you just have to pull the switch.”
Not everyone agreed.
“What took so long?” student Ricardo Nunez said. “It should have been more immediate.”
Recent violent protests outside U.S. embassies in the Middle East also stirred nervous tension among some students, and Texas officials acknowledged global events were taken into account.
Sirens wailed on the Austin campus and cellphones pinged with text messages when the initial alert when out. Students described more confusion than panic as they exited the sprawling campus, where police blocked off all roads heading in as lines of cars sat in gridlock trying to get out.
Tania Lara, a graduate student at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, said she was at work inside a central campus academic building when she got a text message to get as far away was possible.
“It was calm but nobody knew what was going on,” she said, describing a crush of students heading for the exits. “No one was yelling `get out of here’ or anything like that.”
North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani said about 20,000 people left the Fargo school’s campuses as part of an evacuation “that largely took place in a matter of minutes.” FBI spokesman Kyle Loven said NDSU received a call about 9:45 a.m. that included a “threat of an explosive device.”
Police and school officials said the evacuation was as organized as could be expected, with one campus employee describing people as “being North Dakota nice” while driving away.
“Nobody was panicked and nobody was trying to speed or run over anybody,” said Juleen Berg, who works at the NDSU heating plant. “Everybody was waiting their turn.”
Graduate student Lee Kiedrowski of Dickinson, N.D., said he was walking on the NDSU campus when he got a text message telling him to evacuate within 15 minutes.
“The panic button wasn’t triggered quite immediately,” Kiedrowski said. “But there was definitely the thought that we live in a different world now, and with everything that’s going on with the riots at the U.S. embassies in the Middle East, your brain just starts moving. You never really know what’s going on.”
Hiram College received an emailed bomb threat about 4 p.m. and ordered everyone on campus to evacuate. Hiram spokesman Tom Ford said safety teams with bomb-sniffing dogs checked “room by room, building by building” on campus, which is about 35 miles southeast of Cleveland where about 1,300 students are enrolled.
The campus was deemed safe and reopened about six hours later. Ford said the college was fortunate the threat came in late evening, when many students were getting ready for the weekend.
“A lot of kids just piled into their friends’ cars and were out of here,” he said.