A return to offices, normalcy in capital
By Jim Geraghty, States News Service, and Anne E. Kornblut, Globe Staff, 01/23/2002
WASHINGTON -- Three months after an anthrax attack shut down swaths of the nation's capital, senators and their aides returned yesterday to the last federal building to be reopened. They discovered a scene frozen in time, finding their offices pretty much just as they had left them in October.
The marble halls and offices of the Hart Senate Office Building were declared safe last week, following a $14 million cleanup that left the stench of chlorine throughout the building. Some who returned compared the smell lingering from the chlorine dioxide used in the fumigation to a swimming pool's.
Relieved to move out of temporary quarters, Senate aides nonetheless sounded wary as they reentered the Hart building, wondering aloud whether the fumigation had completely eliminated anthrax spores that killed two postal workers and prompted thousands of federal workers to take antibiotics.
The Senate majority leader, Thomas A. Daschle, whose office became an anthrax hot zone after an envelope filled with the bacteria was opened there on Oct. 15, is not scheduled to return to his quarters until March after all the carpeting and furniture have been replaced and the walls stripped bare. But as Daschle led aides and reporters back inside the building for the first time since October, he sounded a note of delight.
"This is a great day. It's good to be back," said Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat. "It's good to be confident that we can return to normalcy, and it is good that the Senate is working again with all eight cylinders."
The "Daschle letter" arrived during a second wave of terror after the Sept. 11 attacks, as media figures and politicians received tainted envelopes containing threatening notes. Eighteen citizens became infected with the bacteria, which traveled unexpected lengths through the postal system and left five people dead. No senators or aides contracted an active infection.
No one has been charged in the anthrax cases. Despite early suggestions that the mailings were the work of a sophisticated foreign power such as Iraq, US scientists have narrowed down the anthrax sent to one derived from an Iowa strain, a type commonly used by US researchers and the military, leading many specialists to conclude that these acts of terrorism were home-grown.
In Washington, where the anthrax attacks reached their peak, the tainted mail came to symbolize just how ill-prepared the government was for a biological attack.
Right after the letter to Daschle was opened, disease control specialists checked hundreds of Capitol Hill aides for anthrax, but did not immediately test the workers at the Brentwood mail facility in northeast Washington where the letter was processed. Two postal workers at Brentwood died shortly thereafter, their lungs incapacitated by anthrax bacteria.
The Hart building, home to 50 senators and as many as 1,000 staff members, was one of more than a dozen federal buildings found to contain anthrax spores. For several weeks last fall, new hot spots were found inside a new agency almost daily. From the Department of Agriculture to the White House's remote mail facility, federal offices were tested and cleaned as officials from the Centers for Disease Control scrambled to understand how the spores spread so broadly.
Except for the Hart building, all the other federal offices were cleaned up within a month or so of their contamination. But in Hart, the newest of the Senate's three office buildings, anthrax was so widespread that health workers insisted on a massive fumigation.
With the building in quarantine, senators who have offices there shared space with colleagues, sometimes cramming into committee rooms controlled by members of the opposing party. That made for some trying moments for displaced lawmakers, who stayed in session weeks longer than expected at the end of last year, trying unsuccessfully to reach a deal on an economic stimulus package.
"At any given time, we were hosting five or six people from other offices," said Kelly Benander, a spokeswoman for Senator John F. Kerry, whose offices are in the nearby Russell building. Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who also has offices in Russell, is now easing his staff members from the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee back into their regular work space in the Hart building, spokewoman Stephanie Cutter said.
During the fumigation, crews overseen by the Environmental Protection Agency and CDC pumped chlorine dioxide gas into Daschle's office and into the ventilation ducts in surrounding walls. It took three attempts to fumigate those areas. Environmental crews also vacuumed the floor; wiped off desks, walls, and other surfaces; and performed spot applications of chlorine dioxide liquid and an antibacterial foam.
Dr. Pat Meehan, the CDC's director of emergency environmental services, told reporters that "extraordinary measures have been taken using the science and technology available to us. Like with any public health problem, we cannot eliminate all risks completely."
Health officials examined more than 5,000 environmental samples from the nine-story office building before clearing it to be reopened.
Still, as they returned to discover their old quarters, some aides were left with a nagging sense of worry.
"There's a little bit of anxiety outweighed by the idea of having your own computer back and having a chair you know is yours," said Darius Goore, deputy chief of staff for Senator Jon Corzine, Democrat of New Jersey.
Since mid-October, Corzine and his staff members have been housed in two rooms in the Russell building.
Corzine's Hart office -- located just around the corner from Daschle's, on the fifth floor -- offered a glimpse of the unsettling past.
A briefing book for the senator, dated Tuesday, Oct. 16, lay on a nearby table. The most recent fax was from Oct. 16. In Corzine's personal office, the senator's overcoat still hung from a coat rack, where he had left it in haste last year.
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