Darcy Malone and Mindy Floerchinger eye the stack of mail with suspicion.
Do the packages carry supplies or do they hold a bomb? Are the envelopes delivering letters - or death?
It’s their job to sort through the pile of mail delivered to the Intermountain Forest Industry Association each day.
Recently, that job has taken on an element of danger.
The forest industry group they work for is one of only three in the Western United States. Two weeks ago the Unabomber, a serial bomber with a wood fascination, mailed a bomb to their sister organization in Sacramento.
A man died when he opened the package.
They fear the same could happen to them.
“We’re the ones answering the phones and delivering the mail,” Malone says, carefully picking through stacks of white and manila envelopes. “If someone is going to get it, it’s going to be one of us.”
Last week, officials at the timber association called in the FBI and a local security agency to teach them how to look for explosives both in their mail, as well as in the office.
Between the Unabomber and the Oklahoma City bombing, businesses in Spokane and Coeur d’Alene have swamped the U.S. Postal Inspector’s office, security agencies and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, asking how to protect themselves.
“This is something everyone should know,” said John Shull, general manager of the Watson Agency, a security firm in Coeur d’Alene. “It might help you survive.”
In the last week and a half, Shull has taught eight classes in bomb detection to various Coeur d’Alene businesses, including the timber association.
Investigators say the Unabomber appears to be fascinated with wood. Some of his bomb parts are carved from wood; one victim was named Wood; and twigs have been included in a bomb.
He is believed to be responsible for 15 bombings around the country during the past 17 years. Three people have died. His last four bombs came through the mail.
The Coeur d’Alene organization, along with the agencies in California and Oregon, represent most forest industry businesses in the West. They lobby Congress and state legislatures on behalf of people who cut, sell and process timber.
The organizations are used to clashing with environmentalists, said Coeur d’Alene spokesman Ken Kohli. They expect vandalism to logging equipment or spray paint on their cars.
But threats to their lives are a whole new ballgame.
Shull, who spent more than 20 years disposing of explosives in the Army, spent an hour last week teaching the employees how to spot potential trouble.
“I teach them to trust themselves,” Shull said. “If something doesn’t seem right, then it probably isn’t.”
He tells them to watch for anything that seems out of place in their office. Packages that have too much tape or wrapping could be holding an explosive device together. He tells them not to be embarrassed to call authorities.
Floerchinger and Malone look at mail differently now.
“We used to grab it, flip it over and just slice it open,” Floerchinger says. “Now we take our time.”
Kootenai County officials also turned to Shull.
A couple of days after the course, a suspicious box appeared in Commissioner Dick Compton’s office.
“Normally you’d go in and give it a kick to see what it was,” Compton said with a laugh. Instead, “I was down on my knees reading the label.”
It turned out to be a box of plaques to honor county employees.
Shull is not the only one who’s been busy.
Postal Inspector Jim Bordenet has spent the last week on the road talking to businesses, many of them in the wood-products industry.
The Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms in Spokane has also been swamped with requests for information on how to detect bombs, said Bob Harper.
His office has given classes to employees in the Spokane Federal Building.
Despite the recent incidents, Bordenet and Harper said there is little for Spokane and Coeur d’Alene area residents to fear.
Of an estimated 181 billion pieces of mail delivered by the Postal Service annually, there have been an average of 16 bombs a year sent via the post office.
“One is more likely to win the lottery,” Bordenet said.
MEMO: Cut in Spokane edition