Wave of bomb threat phone calls hit CMU, other universities

Late in the night on Thursday, Nov. 11, the Carnegie Mellon Police Department sent out a campus-wide email revealing that earlier that evening, they had received a bomb threat at Warner Hall, the Purnell Center for the Arts, and the Gates-Hillman Building. They explained that the locations were evacuated, and the Pittsburgh Police Department sent in canine units to thoroughly sweep each building. All buildings were cleared of any threats following the sweeps, and, according to the email, law enforcement officials believed the threat was not credible and the situation was contained. This is one of the latest in a wave of bomb threats being issued to institutions of higher education since last week.

Shilpa Bakre, the interim managing director of communications at the university, provided more detailed information about the incident in response to an email inquiry from The Tartan. “At 6:33 p.m. on Thursday evening (11/11/21), the CMU Police Department received a phone call of bomb threats at Warner Hall, the Purnell Center for the Arts, and the Gates-Hillman Building,” she wrote in the email. Following a thorough assessment, in coordination with the City of Pittsburgh Police Department and other law enforcement agencies, she said, the threat was found not to be credible. Despite no evidence of an active threat, campus police evacuated the buildings out of an abundance of caution, which enabled Pittsburgh Police K-9 units to conduct thorough sweeps that revealed all buildings were clear.

Ava Egerton, a senior acting major, was in the Purnell Center for the Arts that night because one of the main stage shows she’s in — “The Kennedy Plays” — was in tech, the process of entering the theatre space after the rehearsal process. At around 8:40 p.m., her stage manager announced that they were going to hold for the night and have an emergency evacuation. “So we all exited the building. And we were intending to go back in to finish the tech process for the night,” she said. Egerton said that she had been told by the director of the play that the evacuations were due to a bomb threat but that it was not credible.

Katia Peppas, a senior architecture major with a drama minor, was also in Purnell that night working backstage in the tech rehearsal for “The Kennedy Plays.” After evacuating, she said that she and at least 50 other people who left rehearsal stood outside between the UC and Purnell and were confused about what to do in this situation.

Egerton echoed the sentiment. “We heard that it was going to take an hour minimum for any clearance,” she said. Not wanting to take a risk, they decided to call it a night. She also said she was fairly calm throughout the process. “There were a lot of us together …. It was nice to hear that [the bomb threat] was from a non-credible source,” she explained. “There also wasn't any, like loitering or wasting time. I felt like people were very efficient when it came to making decisions. So as scary as it is, I think people really took the threat seriously. So I definitely felt very safe throughout the entire time that we were trying to figure out what the best move would be.”

“I understand now that non-credible bomb threats are unfortunately common at universities, but at the moment we were evacuated Thursday night, I didn't know that, and was genuinely scared,” said Peppas. She was shocked that an email wasn’t sent out immediately by the university upon the threat being called in. “While we were asked to evacuate, there was no central communication to tell people which buildings were safe to go into or even if we needed to leave campus as a whole. Instead, we were sent home and asked to come back the next day as if nothing had happened.” Many of the people she was working with had left their laptops, car keys, and other essentials in the building so they waited nearby for a few hours and returned later that night to collect their belongings. She found out the next morning that she could go back into the building when she saw the email that Carnegie Mellon Police sent out on Thursday night.

“Given the public nature of the building examinations, a campus-wide email was sent when the situation was contained so the community would be aware of what transpired,” Bakre explained. “The safety and welfare of the CMU community is a top priority.”

A source from the Graduate Student Assembly, who was not present at the buildings during the evacuations, also voiced their concerns about the way the communication of the incident was handled by the university even though the threat turned out to be non-credible. They explained that many graduate students work in their offices late into the night, and others might be heading back to work after grabbing dinner. “Why was a CMU-Safety Alert not pushed to the students when the university decided to investigate the threat?” they questioned. The email, with the subject line that read “All Clear: Bomb Threat,” sent at around 11 p.m., was the first that most students had heard of the threat.

The Tartan asked the Enterprise Risk Management Department why alerts were not sent out to students and staff before or during the evacuations. The department replied with a statement from Vice President for Operations and Interim Vice President for Research Daryl Weinert, which said that following the assessment conducted by law enforcement agencies which found the threat to be non-credible, the decision was made to not deliver a CMU-Alert community-wide message.

“Other universities have received similar threats too,” pointed out the source from GSA. “But they’ve been very open about communication to students to avoid these areas as they investigate, not just sending one email after they’ve evacuated everyone and done a full canine sweep to rule it out.”

Bomb threats were also issued to the University of Southern California, New York University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, among others, on Thursday. The Tartan obtained screenshots of alerts sent by NYU’s Emergency Notifications system on Thursday evening to its community members. The first, sent at around 7:30 p.m., alerted that a bomb threat directed to three buildings had been received, announced an evacuation, and provided a link for more information. Subsequent alerts provided instructions for the evacuation process, and the final one informed everyone that the buildings had been cleared of threats by the police. In contrast, Carnegie Mellon sent one community-wide email after the evacuation was completed.

Bakre wrote that the Carnegie Mellon University Police Department continues to work with the Pittsburgh Police Department and the FBI to investigate further, and that “To maintain the integrity of investigations, we generally refrain from commenting on specifics.” Recent news reports indicate that a teenager from Virginia might be involved in the issuance of bomb threats to universities, though it is not immediately clear which specific threats the 14-year-old was involved in.