Senate workers return to Hart building

Offices had been closed since anthrax attacks three months ago

January 23, 2002|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The Hart Senate Office Building, which had been sealed for months as an anthrax hot zone, reopened yesterday like a time capsule.

Fax machines rumbled to life, spitting out documents stuck in their memories from last fall. Bagged lunches awaited their owners, moldy in office refrigerators. Long-lost jackets and dress shoes sat at desks. Calendars were frozen on Oct. 17, the last day that workers had occupied their offices.

"Look what I found," said Carrie Markey, an assistant to Sen. Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat. In her hand was a note: "Make X-Mas List."

Senate aides cracked open their office doors and found a life left behind with little warning: a nine-story building frozen in time since authorities sealed it. The building closed two days after an aide to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota opened a letter filled with anthrax.

While Hart was closed, 5,000 staffers who usually report there worked in senators' Capitol hideaway offices, borrowed space in the Postal Square building and borrowed conference rooms. About half of all senators work in this building, which authorities fumigated several times in a $14 million anthrax decontamination effort using poisonous chlorine dioxide gas.

"The unique thing about coming back is that it's just business as usual - which is a luxury we haven't had since the middle of October," said Carol Guthrie, a spokeswoman for Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat.

Few ventured into the building during the past three months without gas masks. An exception was Sen. John B. Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat who signed a personal injury waiver in October so he could drop time-released food tablets into his fish tank. (The fish and the senator survived.)

As the workers unpacked yesterday, if anyone was worried about breathing deeply, few showed it. Stacey Banks, an assistant to Sen. Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican, munched a sandwich and contemplated dipping into the same box of teabags that survived the anthrax outbreak and building fumigation.

"Nothing's changed," he said, looking nonplussed.

The staff of Democratic Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes of Maryland broke into cheers and high-fives as the workers entered their suite just after noon. Sarbanes aides taped an "Open For Business" sign to an office window.

Not everything survived the siege. As Sarbanes settled in, a grim-faced aide told him, "The ficus died." Most staffers concluded that the plant had expired from lack of water, and gamely settled into their cubicles.

Lingering jitters went ignored. A staffer, Cheryl Fox, coughed loudly as she carried a box into the office. "OK, don't scare people," a friend told her.

Others could not hide their memories of the bioterror attack.

"It's edgy here," said Andrew Kenneally, the webmaster for Reid's office. Although comforted by the Frank Sinatra CDs and pictures of his girlfriend in his office, he added, "Unpredictability is normal now."

Senators discovered ironic mail in their in boxes. Reid said he found a letter from Barbara A. Mikulski, Maryland's other Democratic senator, with ideas on fighting bioterrorism, written before the anthrax scare occurred.

In mid-October, after 31 people who were inside or near Daschle's office when the tainted letter was opened initially tested positive for exposure to anthrax, about 2,000 Capitol Hill workers and visitors lined up for nasal swab tests. Though all of those people tested negative, scores of them were prescribed a 60-day regimen of Cipro or another antibiotic as a precaution.

Anthrax attacks killed a total of five people in New York, Washington and Florida. Two of the dead were postal workers; the others apparently received tainted letters. No Senate workers were among the fatalities.

In October, critics questioned why the building was kept open for two days after the anthrax letter was opened. This time, authorities seemed to take no chances. U.S. Capitol Police suspended the reopening last week after finding a bag with protective gear near Daschle's office. The gear later tested negative for anthrax.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have assured Senate staffs that the building is free of anthrax and safe from the poisons used to kill the spores.

Even as folks settled back into their routines, insisting that the anthrax scare did not cost them their productivity, the building was not entirely back in business. Daschle's office has been gutted and will be entirely renovated with new carpets, computers and desks. Work crews have stripped the suite down to the concrete floors and exposed ceiling ducts.

In addition to gassing the building, remediation teams used high-powered vacuums and liquid chlorine in 13 offices that tested positive for anthrax. Yesterday, the spots in those offices where biohazard teams had swabbed for traces of the bacteria were marked with round blue stickers.

To counter such unnerving reminders, work crews left pink and purple flowers in the hallways. But some staffers could not get past the building's vaguely chlorinated smell.

"It's like a nursing home in here," one grumbled.

Little in Sen. Ben Nelson's office gave away the drama that gripped the Hart building - except for the Nebraska Democrat's guest book.

Under the signatures of tourists predating the anthrax scare was an entry this month from a different kind of visitor: "Anthrax Decon Team," a member of the cleanup crew scribbled. "Please write!"

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