Opening mail now tense job on Capitol Hill

Threat of anthrax rattles lawmakers' staff

War On Terrorism : Anthrax

October 16, 2001|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Sorting through the office mail yesterday afternoon, an aide to Alaska Sen. Frank H. Murkowski found a handwritten envelope with no postage and no return address. The staffer immediately called Capitol police but was told to get in line. Already, 11 other congressional offices had reported suspicious mail yesterday.

After a powdery substance inside an envelope sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle tested positive for anthrax, the mountain of letters that arrives daily on Capitol Hill suddenly developed an air of menace.

Congressional staff members are used to dangers they can see - when shifty characters wander into their offices, aides can hit a panic button under the reception desks - but now Congress is meeting an invisible threat.

"I'm dreading the phone call from my mother I'm going to get tonight," said Todd Olsen, a 20-year-old intern who handles mail for Sen. Larry E. Craig, an Idaho Republican whose office is a few doors down from Daschle's. "She's going to be on the next plane out and drag me home."

As police responded to a dozen or more reports of suspicious mail that turned out to be false alarms, a quiet anxiety gripped the Hill.

Tennessee Republican Bill Frist, the only physician in the Senate, posted a checklist of precautions on his Web site. It led with the advice, "DO NOT PANIC," but then proceeded with such unnerving suggestions as "watch for fever" and "keep others away."

Officials walked between Hill offices with sealed packages that included cotton swabs and containers for biohazardous samples.

"WE ARE REFUSING ALL MAIL," warned a sign taped to the door of Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat. Lobbyists with handouts were kept outside her glass doors and directed instead to the Senate post office.

By midafternoon, mail carriers wearing surgical gloves were re-collecting all the letters they had delivered earlier in the day. The mail was being taken to a basement storage area for inspection, and further postal delivery was suspended indefinitely.

At Daschle's suite in the Hart office building, an officer stood guard. Some of the roughly 40 staffers under quarantine for most of the day could be spotted watching the TV news or talking to police. In the crowd of journalists outside, Japanese, Spanish and other foreign-language TV correspondents delivered reports, repeating one word everyone could recognize: "Anthrax."

Senators tried to project a business-as-usual attitude but it was hardly a day like any other.

"Don't worry about calling us today - we know you've got other things on your mind," Debra Lins, a banker from Sauk City, Wis., shouted through a crack in the locked double doors to Sen. Russell D. Feingold's office. The Wisconsin Democrat's suite abuts Daschle's mailroom, so police had locked the staff inside the office as a precaution.

"We're here at ground zero," said Tom Farrell, president of People's State Bank from Prairie Du Chien, Wis., who was to have met with Feingold about the economic climate post-Sept. 11. "You read about these things at home, but when you see something like this yourself, you realize we really are at war."

For delivery people, work seemed suddenly frightening.

"I don't like this at all," said Airborne Express carrier Stacey Simms, who was wearing plastic gloves she bought with her own money. When told that anthrax could result in skin lesions, she began talking about a cold sore on her face and asked nervously, "What are the symptoms again?"

Elsewhere on the Hill, visitors told of seeing authorities in biohazard gear entering offices that reported suspicious packages.

"I was on the House side and two police went into an office in gas masks and protective clothing," said Andrew Bestor, who was handing out fliers protesting U.S. policy toward Japan. "But nobody was panicking or running or screaming or anything."

The attacks left interns particularly jittery because the 20-somethings usually are the first to touch incoming mail. Some were talking about wearing surgical gloves - even surgical masks - when doing that job.

"We're really on the front lines," said Olsen, the Idaho senator's intern. "Now terrorism is just down the hall. I've always felt safe here, but what do you do about a particle that's so small even the police can't see it?"

Maryland's senators work two floors directly above and below Daschle's office. An aide to Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes said senior staff now would screen the mail before interns touched it.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski suspended the delivery of all letters and packages to her office yesterday and held a meeting with Capitol police, who planned to deliver emergency kits with flashlights and blankets should a terrorist attack leave workers stranded in their offices.

"People are tense," said Mikulski. "We're concerned, but we're committed to keeping the Capitol open."

Public tours of the Capitol were suspended indefinitely, however, and tourists were left to find their own way. Some visitors could not be deterred.

Inside Sen. Byron L. Dorgan's office, representatives from the USA Dry Pea & Lentil Council waited for a private word with the North Dakota Democrat.

"Just the word `anthrax' sounds like death," said Tim McGreevy, who heads the council. "But we've got important issues we're here to discuss."

Besides, to some of the growers, fear of terrorism is not unique to big cities anymore.

One farmer mentioned that last week, the post office in Pullman, Wash., closed after a package arrived covered in white dust. A bioterrorist protocol went into effect. But unlike the Capitol, the package in the other Washington was a false alarm. The powder turned out to be potato starch.

Sun staff writer Karen Hosler contributed to this report.

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