Hours after the Secret Service intercepted suspicious packages addressed to former President Barack Obama, ex-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other prominent national figures, the building that houses the San Diego Union-Tribune and an office of Sen. Kamala Harris was evacuated today following the discovery a stack of unattended postal parcels outside the downtown high-rise.
The five Postal Service packages left by an unknown person in the middle of the night on a patio alongside the U-T building at 600 B St. -- boxes that turned out to contain various harmless items -- prompted San Diego police to clear everyone out of the newspaper's work spaces along with the rest of the skyscraper shortly after 8 a.m.
The process was complete in about 15 minutes and was orderly, said City News Service police-beat reporter Jacob Sisneros, who also works in the 24-story building.``It was a pretty seamless evacuation,'' said Sisneros, who estimated that several hundred people had to leave the structure, which also houses San Diego Fire-Rescue Department headquarters and other government offices. ``They got everybody down through the elevators, and we took a left out of the building.''
Officers closed Sixth Avenue between A and B streets as an added precaution, resulting in some additional congestion in the busy area at the tail end of morning rush hour.
Though San Diego police already were on heightened alert due to the spate of suspicious packages, evacuees from the B Street building seemed mostly unfazed by the unexpected disruption to their daily routines, Sisneros said.
``People were just kind of confused (about) why they (were) evacuated,'' he said. ``They were (mostly) worried about when they would get back to work.''Longtime Union-Tribune photographer John Gibbins, likewise, described the scene outside his office as calm, though some of the displaced, including fellow journalists, speculated about possible connections to the apparent mail-bombing attempts thwarted a short time earlier.
Within about an hour, a city bomb squad had used an X-ray scanner to determine that the abandoned priority-mail packages were filled with everyday items, including shoes, children's books, a football and bags of potato chips, SDPD Lt. Kevin Wadhams said. Police then gave an all-clear and allowed workers to go back into the building.
Law enforcement authorities -- including personnel from the FBI and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives -- jointly concluded that the placement of the packages outside the B Street office high-rise did not constitute a crime and was not linked to the suspected high-profile political bombing attempts elsewhere in the nation.Surveillance video shot outside the U-T building showed someone setting down the boxes -- which were not sealed or addressed, though they had some kind of writing on them -- on a courtyard table next to an orange bicycle-tire pump around 1:45 a.m., Wadhams said. Police were unable to identify the person from the images, however.``The immediate area is frequented by transients at night,'' SDPD public-affairs Officer Billy Hernandez noted.
Augie Lopez, a security guard who works at the front desk of the building, said it was the first time the structure, a prominent feature of the downtown San Diego skyline, had been evacuated in his three years on the job.
The emergency came hours after the spate of possible mail bombs was intercepted across the country.
In addition to Obama and Clinton, the parcels were addressed to former CIA head John Brennan via CNN's Manhattan offices; Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Los Angeles; and Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schulz.
The fact that Harris -- a Democratic lawmaker who is an outspoken critic of President Donald Trump -- has an office in the San Diego building raised concerns for a time that the placement of the unidentified boxes on the adjacent public patio might be linked to the other apparent criminal cases.``Our office was evacuated today after suspicious packages were found near the building,'' Harris spokeswoman Lily Adams wrote in a Twitter posting. ``The packages were not addressed to the senator or our office. We are grateful to the San Diego Police Department for their work to swiftly investigate this issue.
''The nature and intensity of the response to the local security scare was related to the possible terror-bombing cases on the East Coast, Hernandez acknowledged.
Photo Credit: Phil Farrar