Tens of thousands of people streamed off university campuses in Texas, North Dakota and Ohio on Friday after telephoned bomb threats prompted officials to warn students and faculty to get away as quickly as possible. All three campuses eventually were deemed safe and reopened by the evening, as authorities worked to determine whether the threats were related.
The FBI was working to determine whether the threats to the University of Texas, North Dakota State University, and Hiram College in Ohio were related. No explosives were found.
The University of Texas received a call about 8-35 a.m. local time from a man claiming to be with al-Qaeda who said he had placed bombs all over the 50,000-student Austin campus, according to University of Texas spokeswoman Rhonda Weldon. He claimed the bombs would go off in 90 minutes and all buildings were evacuated at 9-50 a.m. as a precaution, Ms Weldon said.
The deadline passed without incident, and the university reopened all buildings by noon. Classes were cancelled for the rest of the day, but other university activities were to resume by 5 p.m..
A third evacuation order for much-smaller Hiram College in northeast Ohio was issued hours later but lifted on Friday night, after a sweep found nothing suspicious.
“We are extremely confident that the campus is safe,” UT President William Powers told a news conference.
Mr Powers defended the decision not to evacuate sooner.
“It’s easy to make a phone call ... the first thing we needed to do was evaluate,” Mr 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.”
North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani said 20,000 people also were evacuated from his school’s main and downtown campuses in Fargo after the school received its threat. FBI spokesman Kyle Loven said a call that included a “threat of an explosive device” came in about 9-45 a.m., but he declined to give further details.
NDSU buildings reopened about 1 p.m. and classes were set to resume an hour later, said Bresciani, adding that the campus had been “deemed safe.”
Graduate student Lee Kiedrowski of Dickinson, North Dakota, said he was walking on campus just before 10 a.m. when he got a text message telling him students had been ordered to evacuate within 15 minutes.
“The panic button wasn’t triggered quite immediately,” said Kiedrowski, who is studying infectious disease management and biosecurity. “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.”
In Texas, campus sirens wailed and cellphones pinged with text messages when the initial alert when out. Students described more confusion than panic as they exited the sprawling campus in what one described as an “orderly but tense” manner. Students said they were directed off campus by university staff.
“One of them said to me ‘get off this campus as soon as possible,’” said Elizabeth Gerberich, an 18-year-old first-year student from New Jersey.
Police blocked off roads heading into campus as lines of cars sat in gridlock trying to get out.
With rain falling, students stood under awnings and overhangs and inundated nearby off-campus restaurants and coffee shops as they waited for updates from officials.
Abby Johnston, a production and special editions coordinator for Texas Student Media, said she received the first text message from the university less than an hour after she arrived at work and started thinking about what she would publish in the next day’s paper. Then the sirens blared.
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.”
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.
Also on Friday, Valparaiso University in Indiana increased security and posted a warning to students on its website after a vague threat was discovered scrawled in some graffiti. The school says the threat claimed “dangerous and criminal activity” would occur on Friday during the university’s daily chapel break.
The FBI and local authorities searched the campus but found nothing suspicious and university spokeswoman Nicole Niemi said classes and other regular activities were continuing as planned.