- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 16, 2001

The bioterrorism scare across a jittery nation spread to Capitol Hill yesterday as an aide to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle opened an envelope that tested positive initially for anthrax.

Capitol Police Lt. Dan Nichols said the letter, which was opened by a female staffer in Mr. Daschle's personal office about 10:15 a.m., contained powder. Two preliminary field tests on the letter were positive for anthrax.

The letter to Mr. Daschle's office in the Hart Building was postmarked Sept. 18 from Trenton, N.J., the same city from which a letter bearing anthrax was mailed to NBC anchor Tom Brokaw.

Meanwhile yesterday, more cases of anthrax and exposure to its spores were reported to authorities.

Two persons came down with the disease the 7-month-old son of an ABC News producer and a 73-year-old mailroom employee at a Florida supermarket tabloid who already had been diagnosed with exposure to the anthrax bacteria.

The boy had spent time in the ABC newsroom and was diagnosed with the less-dangerous type of anthrax, which is absorbed through cuts or scratches in the skin. In Florida, health officials confirmed that Ernesto Blanco had contracted the more-deadly inhaled form of anthrax. His co-worker, Bob Stevens, 63, a photographer, died from the disease.

Also yesterday, New Jersey postal officials said a mail carrier and post office maintenance employee in Trenton, where at least two anthrax-tainted letters were mailed, have shown symptoms of the disease. Authorities found traces of anthrax in the Boca Raton, Fla., post office, which handles mail for the tabloid newspaper, where an editor died Oct. 5 of the disease.

Capitol Police quarantined 40 employees in Mr. Daschle's office as doctors tested them with nasal swabs to determine if they were exposed to the potentially deadly bacteria. About 50 people, including police officers who responded without protective suits, were given the antibiotic Cipro as a precaution.

"There was an exposure when the letter was opened," Lt. Nichols said. "This is a criminal investigation."

Capitol Police halted mail delivery to Congress and stopped public tours of the Capitol.

"We have a public safety responsibility, not only to the congressional community, but to the visitors within the Capitol complex," Lt. Nichols said. "Given the current situation it was our decision that it would be in everyone's interest to suspend tours of the United States Capitol."

The envelope was sent to an Army medical research facility at Fort Detrick, Md., for more sophisticated tests. Those results were expected to be available sometime today.

As authorities donning contamination-proof biohazard suits combed his office, a grim-faced Mr. Daschle told reporters he was "very disappointed and angered" that his staff had become an apparent target.

"They are innocent people caught up in a matter for which they have nothing to do," said Mr. Daschle, South Dakota Democrat. "I feel so badly for each of them."

The staff of Sen. Frank H. Murkowski, Alaska Republican, also called Capitol Police yesterday after receiving a "strange" envelope without postage. Mr. Murkowski said officers responded quickly, but then had to wait for an overworked police specialist to examine the envelope's contents.

"We were advised we were twelfth on the list," Mr. Murkowski said, referring to reports of suspicious envelopes in other lawmakers' offices.

Said Lt. Nichols, "We've had a number of suspicious package calls today."

As the Senate convened yesterday afternoon, Chaplain Lloyd John Ogilvie prayed for divine protection.

"Protect the senators and all of us who work with or for them from the insidious threats of bioterrorism," he prayed. "Calm our nerves; replace panic with Your peace. We need You now, dear God."

In the House, Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Livingood issued a directive around noon for all House offices to cease opening mail and return unopened mail for screening.

"There's certainly enough anxiety to go around," said a House staffer. "There's a sense that it could have been anyone."

Nonetheless, emergency communications, disjointed in evacuations at the Capitol last month, were again uneven. Around 3 p.m., three hours after the House was ordered to return unopened mail, a Republican Senate staffer reported that his office was still opening mail.

Although word of the possible anthrax attack spread quickly on Capitol Hill, many lawmakers and aides reacted with resignation rather than alarm. The Capitol had been evacuated twice during the week of Sept. 11 and has beefed up perimeter security, even applying bomb-resistant coatings on windows.

"Nobody was really surprised," said a Senate aide. "It's sort of like, 'What's next smallpox Wednesday?'"

Police and sergeants-at-arms had alerted congressional offices last week about the danger and the procedure for handling suspicious packages.

Federal investigators have not found evidence linking the anthrax cases to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Authorities said a female employee at the Trenton postal station and a male maintenance worker also were being tested for the anthrax bacteria. The post office is located in Hamilton Township, just outside of Trenton.

They said that there was no immediate concern on why it took nearly a month for both letters to be received and opened, based on their posting dates, considering the volume of mail received by NBC and by Mr. Daschle. But, authorities said, inquiries are being made by the FBI of several postal employees.

President Bush announced the discovery in Mr. Daschle's office, saying there may be a link between the anthrax cases and Islamic militant Osama bin Laden, whose al Qaeda terrorist network has been accused in the Sept. 11 attacks.

After Mr. Daschle's staff discovered the powder, they notified his chief of staff, Pete Rouse, who contacted Capitol Police and an attending physician at the Capitol, Dr. John Eisold.

Dr. Eisold sent a team to the office to isolate and decontaminate the staff member, and to administer antibiotics.

"They have been swabbed and they will be tested now to see if they indeed do have any of the spores," Dr. Eisold said. "I do not think any of the employees are in any danger."

The senator's staffers were allowed to go home late yesterday and were advised to wash thoroughly. The House and Senate will be in session today.

"We have to conduct our business here in the Congress and across this country, and we intend to do that," Mr. Daschle said.

Jerry Seper contributed to this report, which is based in part on wire service reports.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide