By Tuesday afternoon, things were back to normal outside a Helena Valley school, after law enforcement determined what had initially been reported as a possible explosive device was not dangerous.
Officers were on scene at Rossiter Elementary School for much of the morning, investigating the item. But at an afternoon news conference, Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton confirmed it did not appear to be an explosive.
Dutton describes the item as a plastic bottle, covered in black electrical tape. He said it was filled with nuts, bolts and washers and contained an unknown liquid.
“For the most untrained eye, including mine, you’d probably guess that that quite possibly was an explosive device,” he said.
School officials found the bottle Tuesday morning, near the basketball hoops on the school playground. They put cones around it and contacted law enforcement around 8:20 a.m. Leaders said they eventually checked an evacuation route to the nearby Little Red Schoolhouse, and once that route was confirmed to be safe, they brought about 490 students there so their parents could pick them up.
Dutton said the school initially reported a possible explosive device was still there, but people investigating later found debris around the area that led them to believe something might already have gone off. He said, until the bomb squad and other trained experts were able to safely examine the bottle, law enforcement had to proceed as though it might be an explosive.
“We had to treat it exactly as we did,” he said.
Once experts did arrive, Dutton said they were able to determine there was no detonator attached to the bottle, and that the liquid did not appear to be flammable. Investigators now believe the bottle came from a construction site, and that it was moved by a homeless individual. Dutton said it was not a hoax, and there was no malicious intent.
“He didn’t do anything wrong,” Dutton said. “He wasn’t trying to plant a bomb; he didn’t even think it was that.”
Dutton said he understood the concern people have had over the changing reports, but that his office was releasing the information from their investigators as they got it.
“Our purpose was to let people know, one, there was no one injured,” he said. “Then we were told it did explode – still there was no one injured, the kids were safe. That’s what I needed to get out to the public; that’s why I reported the information we had.”
He said that Rossiter and Helena Public Schools responded correctly, given the information they had at the time. He said his office will always take a case like this seriously.
“We will take it on face value every time and treat it accordingly, that it is some kind of exploding device,” he said.
Dutton said the evacuation of students and the effort to reunite them with their parents had gone smoothly, but he realized the entire incident had been difficult for families
“What I hope parents take some solace in is that we did respond appropriately, we responded quickly, and we told you the truth, what it was when we found out,” he said.
Dutton said the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives assisted with the investigation.
UPDATE 3:00 P.M.: The Lewis and Clark County Sheriff's Office says an object found at Rossiter Elementary School Tuesday morning was not an explosive device and there was no detonation.
According to Sheriff Leo Dutton, the object was a bottle filled with gears or machine parts and an unknown liquid that does not appear flammable.
Dutton says in the course of the investigation they spoke to a homeless man who they believe found the bottle and moved it from nearby construction site.
Dutton emphasized that the school took the appropriate steps after finding the object due to the unknown nature of it.
Additional tests will be completed, but they are not expected to show any dangerous material.
Rossiter is expected to reopen to students on Wednesday.
UPDATE 11:30 A.M.: Lewis and Clark Emergency Management Office says all Helena and East Helena area schools have been cleared and lock downs have been lifted.
Rossiter remains closed for the day. It has not been determined yet if Rossiter Elementary School students will be allowed to return to class on Wednesday.
Helena College has shut down the Airport Campus and the Donaldson Campus due to the incident at Rossiter Elementary School. Classes at Helena College have been canceled for the remainder of the day and students have been asked to go home.
UPDATE: 10:30 A.M.: The Lewis and Clark Co. Sheriff's Office is holding a news conference on Tuesday morning's incident at Rossiter Elementary School.
UPDATE 9:38 A.M: Lewis and Clark Co. officials say Improvised Explosive Device detonated on the Rossiter Elementary School playground Tuesday morning.
No one was injured when the device went off. A safe path has been cleared for students to be evacuated. Buses are carrying kids to the Little Red School House east of Frontage Rd.
All Helena and East Helena Schools have been locked down as a precaution. Law enforcement officers are searching the schools as a precaution.
The Lewis and Clark Co. Sheriff's Office, the Montana Highway Patrol, the Helena Police Department, FBI and ATF are all on scene assisting with the investigation.
HELENA: Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton say traffic is being diverted around Sierra Rd in the Helena Valley Wednesday morning after a report of a possible explosive device.
Sierra Rd. has been closed between N. Montana and Frontage Road. People are being asked to avoid the area.
According to the Montana Highway Patrol, students are being evacuated from Rossiter Elementary. Parents are being asked to pick up students the Little Red School House.
Parents should take the Frontage Rd or the Masonic Rd. home to reach the school house.
This is a developing story, we will update you when more information becomes available.