HELENA, Mont. - Authorities evacuated an elementary school in Montana's capital city on Tuesday after officials found what they thought were the remnants of a homemade bomb, but it turned out to be a plastic bottle filled with nuts and bolts left in the schoolyard.
School officials made the discovery shortly before classes began at Rossiter Elementary School. They blocked off the area and called 911 at about 8:20 a.m., said Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton.
An investigation found the plastic bottle wrapped in black electrical tape was full of washers, nuts and bolts, along with a non-flammable unidentified liquid, Dutton said. There was no detonator attached to the bottle.
A homeless person found the bottle at a construction site and left it at the playground, he said. No threat had been made against the school, and there were no injuries or damage.
"Pretty much it's solved," Dutton said Tuesday afternoon. "We know who put it there and it wasn't malicious. It did look like a bomb. The school acted appropriately."
The 490 students walked to a nearby location where they could be picked up by their parents, said Superintendent Tyler Ream. School buses kept them warm.
Police closed the school and searched the grounds for additional devices, and thousands of students across Helena and East Helena were kept inside while authorities swept for bombs, authorities said.
Searches also were conducted at the state Capitol and government buildings, Dutton said.
The deputies who responded initially believed it was a bomb, Dutton said. "They were looking at a debris field, what looked like a debris field," he said.
"It wasn't until we could get the bomb squad in there and the evidence team that we learned exactly what it was," Dutton said. "You wouldn't expect any patrol deputy to pick it up and look at it and possibly injure himself or others."
Classes were scheduled to resume Wednesday, said Ream, who planned to meet with teachers and staff to discuss how they would explain Tuesday's events to the children.
"The really important message is if you see something and you don't think it's safe, tell somebody," Ream said, adding it may be difficult to explain to a 5-year-old what the initial concern was.
Helena is a small city of about 30,000 people in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. The school is in a neighborhood just north of the city's center.