Crime & Courts

Suspicious backpacks checked by bomb squad

Two suspicious backpacks left at a downtown Columbia ATM turned out to be harmless after the city bomb squad checked them out with its $300,000-plus mobile robot.

Meanwhile, traffic was blocked off from about 1:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. on the 1100 block of Main Street. The Washington Square building, which houses the city planning and zoning department, was evacuated.

It took almost two hours from the time the city got a 911 call that suspicious backpacks - they were tied together - had been left at the ATM machine for the all-clear to be issued.

"The one thing we are not going to do is rush a response," said Harold Reaves, director of the city Homeland Security department, whose technicians used a mobile robot to assess the threat. A Columbia Fire Department hazmat team stood by in case of fire or explosion.

The robot, which has a variety of devices it can use to open boxes and other containers while transmitting video to its operator, opened the backpacks and found clothes and toiletries, Reaves said.

Even though the contents were determined to be harmless, Reaves said citizens were correct to call 911.

"The one time that someone does not do that would be the time when it would more than just clothes in a backpack," he said.

"In today's world," said Mayor Bob Coble, "unfortunately, you have to take everything like that seriously.'"