Bomb scare kept the shirt off her back


A bomb threat to the Aquatic and Fitness Center at UVA last week left Jenny Nowlen dripping and shivering on the sidewalk, bereft of her clothes, purse, and keys, and forced to wear a wet bathing suit for the rest of the day.

The bomb threat was called into 911 at 1:40pm, and university police evacuated the Aquatic Center around 2pm February 12.  “Luckily, it wasn’t really crowded then,” says Center assistant director Doug Tammen, who estimates that 100 people were told to leave.

Nowlen, an employee at the nearby Darden business school, was just coming from the pool into the locker room when police cleared fitness buffs from the building. “Nobody knew how to treat it; they just stood around and looked at each other,” she says. Told to grab a coat and shoes, she didn’t get her purse or clothes, she says, because she thought, “This can’t take too long.”

After the exercisers had been standing outside for about 20 minutes, it became apparent that they weren’t going to be allowed to return anytime soon. They had to wait for a bomb sniffing dog that had been called in from Culpeper, says Sgt. Melissa Fields of University Police.

That meant tNowlen was stranded at the Aquatic Center. A staffer at the Center “asked if I was okay and if I needed to make a phone call,” Nowlen says. “She had clothes in her car and gave me some black nylon pants, a fuzzy hat, and a t-shirt. A friend at work came and got me.” 

Clad in her bathing suit and ill-fitting pants, the hardest part for Nowlen was “looking my worst and going back to work.” All afternoon she called the police to find out when she could retrieve her belongings, including the keys to her house.  

Meanwhile police were trying to trace the call. Wouldn’t Caller ID be a deterrent to anonymous bomb threats? “We’d hope the fact that it’s a criminal act would be a deterrent,” says Sgt. Fields. Certainly 911 can tell where a call originates, but “people don’t think” about what they’re doing, Fields says. She says the threat is currently under investigation.

Nowlen says the oddest thing was not knowing how to react to the evacuation alert. “People didn’t know whether to run for their lives, or whether to get out as fast as they could without exposing themselves to the cold,” she says. “The smart ones got dressed and left.”

Noting that every situation is different, Fields nevertheless recommends that if an emergency worker asks you to leave a building, you should leave as quickly as possible.

A search of the building by the bomb-sniffing dog found nothing, and Fitness Center patrons were allowed to come in and retrieve their personal belongings around 6:30pm. 

For Nowlen, her “strange ordeal” was over.