Thursday, October 14, 2010

Toilet Paper, a School, Hazmat, and Being Funny

So much depends on context. For example:
"...Dozens of YouTube videos show Cessna pilots throwing toilet paper from their planes and cutting the resulting ribbons with their propellers.

" 'It is an old stunt to drop a roll of toilet paper from a plane and then try to cut the resulting streamer with one's wing or propeller,' said hobby pilot Wayne Smith of Knoxville, Tenn., in an e-mail. 'Getting a hazmat team to check out the results is beyond ridiculous. Where has our country's sense of humor been hidden?'..."
Joyriding in an airplane, trying to shred toilet paper? That actually sounds like fun. Silly, a bit stupid, potentially dangerous: but fun.

And who could possibly think otherwise?

Hazmat Meets Toilet Paper

Here's how a hazmat team and toilet paper met recently, in New Jersey:
"Update: Westwood field bombed from air with toilet paper; pilot could be charged" (October 14, 2010 )

Tariq Zehawi, via, used w/o permission"A Westwood man who bombed the middle school grounds with toilet paper may face federal charges for reckless operation of an aircraft and dropping objects from a plane without proper authorization, a Federal Aviation Administration spokesman said Thursday.

"The pilot, whom the spokesman declined to identify, flew a single-engine propeller plane registered to a Westwood address over the high school and athletic fields shortly after 6 p.m., covering the athletic fields and surrounding area with his soggy cargo, F.A.A. spokesman Jim Peters said....

"...Children were on the field at the time of the incident, Peters said.

"The aircraft, a Cessna 172 S, took off from Caldwell at 6 p.m., and landed there an hour later, after making three passes over Westwood Regional Middle School and papering an adjacent athletic field, surrounding trees, the building, and the ground in front of the high school, Peters said...."

"...Investigators from the Bergen County Sheriff's Department, who were called to investigate objects dropped from a low-flying aircraft, retrieved four rolls of soggy toilet paper from the scene, Sheriff Leo McGuire said. Hazmat teams were also called to the scene but did not find any indication of hazardous materials, McGuire said....

"...'What might seem to be a somewhat harmless prank, in this post 9-11 age, especially with the amount of air traffic we have from Teterboro and the New York airports, a low-flying aircraft is extremely disconcerting,' he said. 'If this was a prank, it is a prank that will end in arrest for the perpetrator.'..."
The toilet paper may have been dry when in left the airplane. According to the article, it was "a dewy night," so by the time investigators arrived the toilet paper streamers were wet.

As it turns out, the wet toilet paper was just wet toilet paper: annoying, maybe, but harmless.

I don't always side with "the authorities." Like when a middle-school student was led away in handcuffs - for using an erasable marker. (Apathetic Lemming of the North (April 6, 2010))

In this case, though: I think sending that hazmat team was a prudent choice.
Just Wet Toilet Paper
Like I said, the stuff festooning the school grounds was just wet toilet paper. Wet toilet paper is notoriously difficult to remove from tree branches: but it's hardly a threat, except to one's aesthetic sensibilities.

But consider the possibilities.
Remember Anthrax?
Wet just about anything, however, can harbor pathogenic microorganisms. And, sometimes, even dry powders can be dangerous. Remember the 2001 Anthrax situation? Sure, the stuff only killed five people: but folks were a tad cautious about opening their mail, after word got around. (August 6, 2008)

War isn't Funny

I might, as a teenager, have thought that running onto an airport tarmac and throwing a backpack toward an airliner would be funny. The backpack wouldn't have anything dangerous inside, so everybody would understand that it was a joke, right?

Eventually, maybe. Even then, quite a few folks would have frowned on a daft stunt like that.


Like it or not, there's a war on.

War isn't funny: things get broken, and people die.

Biological weapons exist. The 2001 anthrax incident seems to have been the work of one man, and not all that directly connected to what we usually think of as "terrorists:" but it showed what could be done.

"Hobby pilots" may or may not be aware of what's happened during the last decade.

Emergency responders, on the other hand, don't have much of a choice. It's their job to be know about threats they might have to respond to.

Maybe the odds are that an airplane dropping ribbons of white material over the grounds of a school isn't a threat. I think that's the case.

But it's not, I also think, a good idea to assume that odd events like that probably are pranks, and act on that assumption.

This Didn't Happen

Let's say that the 'funny prank' wasn't so harmless, and the Westwood, New Jersey, authorities were a more hearty, less cautious lot.

Hearing that an airplane had dropped long white ribbons of stuff on a school, the Westwood branch of the Keystone Cops were startled at the news. Then, with remarks like 'boys will be boys,' and 'wish I'd done that,' they went back to chomping donuts and drinking coffee.

Problem was that, in this (hypothetical) case, the long white ribbons were laced with little, tiny, microscopic critters. Not very nice ones, either.

A week later, with the area between Spring Valley and Hackensack cordoned off, someone from the CDC was trying to convince a Congressional committee that it was a really bad idea for them to enter Westwood and interview survivors.

Unlikely? Probably.

Impossible? I don't think so.

And I don't think it's a good idea for emergency responders to react - or not react - based on what they feel might be so.

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Note! Although I believe that these websites and blogs are useful resources for understanding the War on Terror, I do not necessarily agree with their opinions. 1 1 Given a recent misunderstanding of the phrase "useful resources," a clarification: I do not limit my reading to resources which support my views, or even to those which appear to be accurate. Reading opinions contrary to what I believed has been very useful at times: sometimes verifying my previous assumptions, sometimes encouraging me to change them.

Even resources which, in my opinion, are simply inaccurate are sometimes useful: these can give valuable insights into why some people or groups believe what they do.

In short, It is my opinion that some of the resources in this blogroll are neither accurate, nor unbiased. I do, however, believe that they are useful in understanding the War on Terror, the many versions of Islam, terrorism, and related topics.