AUSTIN, Texas - Tens of thousands of people streamed off university campuses in Texas and North Dakota today after telephoned bomb threats prompted officials to warn students and faculty to get away as quickly as possible. Both campuses eventually were deemed safe and reopened by early afternoon, as authorities worked to determine whether the threats were related.
The University of Texas received a call about 8:35 a.m. from a man claiming to be with al-Qaida 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, Weldon said.
The deadline passed without incident, and the university reopened all buildings by noon. Classes were canceled for the rest of the day, but other university activities were to resume by 5 p.m.
"We are extremely confident that the campus is safe," UT President William Powers told a news conference.
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. He said the agency was trying to determine if the two campus threats were related.
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, N.D., 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's 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 freshman from New Jersey.
Police blocked off roads heading into campus as lines of cars sat in gridlock trying to get out.
At the football stadium, executive senior associate athletics director Ed Goble said he discussed logistics with authorities because the Longhorns needed to get ready to leave for a Saturday football game at the University of Mississippi. Shortly after 11 a.m., while the rest of campus remained almost entirely deserted, Goble said police had given players permission to go into the athletic complex to pack for the game.
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.
"We do the siren test once a month and so at first people thought maybe it was just a test, and then we started to tell everybody, 'No actually we have to get out of here pretty immediately,"' said Johnston, 22. "There was definitely a little bit of nervous tension."
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."
Alsotoday, 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 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.