Hostages held in post office in Virginia

WYTHEVILLE, Va. — Negotiators were trying to coax an armed man to release hostages that had been held for hours Wednesday in a post office in a rural, mountain town in western Virginia.

Shots were fired when the standoff began at about 2:30 p.m., but there were no reports of injuries, and relatives of two of the hostages say they have talked to their loved ones by phone. The suspect made no demands other than to ask for a pizza, said Pete Rendina, spokesman for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.

An officer delivered food and drink to the front door at the request of the suspect, state police said in a news release. Earlier reports said the man was in a wheelchair, but state police said he entered the building pushing one.

An FBI negotiator late Wednesday asked the several dozen SWAT members, police, fire and others surrounding the building to be quiet because authorities were talking with the unidentified suspect.

Originally, Mayor Trent Crewe told The Associated Press there were five hostages, including included three employees and two customers. But he said there are fewer in the building, as some people have been accounted for. He did not know how many people were being held, and state police would only say it was more than one.

Virginia State Police sent in SWAT and a bomb technician. Police in the town in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains told the Wytheville Enterprise the man had what appeared to be five pounds of a common plastic explosive strapped to his chest. State police spokeswoman Corinne Geller would not confirm that.

Susan Holman, manager of a store across the street, said officers told employees to leave the building because there was a man with what appeared to be explosives in the small, brick post office downtown.

“The officer told us the man had enough explosives to take out the whole block,” Holman told the Enterprise.

Carlton Austin said his daughter, postal worker Margie Austin, was among the hostages. She managed to call a family friend around 4:30 p.m. and said she was fine. Later, her father said, family members were waiting to hear more.

“That’s all we can do,” he said.

Niki Oliver told the Enterprise that her brother, Jimmy Oliver, was one of the hostages and had been able to phone family members.

“We love you,” she yelled to him as his mother was speaking to him on the phone.

Niki Oliver said her brother went to the post office to mail a Christmas gift to his son.

Town manager Wayne Sutherland officers had circled the freestanding, brick post office in the county seat of Wythe County.

“It’s completely surrounded by police in every direction,” Sutherland said. “All I can see is blue lights.”

Pete Rendina, spokesman for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, said the suspect was missing part of his leg, but he had no other information.

Postal inspectors from Roanoke and Charleston, W.Va., were in the town.

Sutherland said the streets were filled with holiday shoppers at the time in the traditional-looking American town of 8,500 decked out for Christmas.

“All the stores are busy,” he said.