- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 12, 2002

Mass hysteria caused 11 federal workers to complain of sickness at the U.S. Commerce Department, where rumors led employees to believe that irradiated letters had emitted a toxic gas, authorities said.

Law enforcement sources said there was no gas or any other hazardous material, just a bunch of frightened workers who ended up inconveniencing a sizeable part of the Northwest quadrant.

The incident at the Herbert C. Hoover Building at 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW prompted the city to close a portion of 14th Street for more than two hours during the peak of Thursday evening's commute.

D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams, speaking after a morning news conference, said he is reviewing the way emergency crews handled the incident, but his spokesman, Tony Bullock, said, "The mayor isn't going to play Monday-morning quarterback."

"I think they did what should have been done, which is to proceed with caution," Mr. Bullock said. "This is an example of how things should happen, with shared responsibility and good communication."

Mr. Williams told reporters that a hazardous-materials commander on the scene was faced with a serious situation when five persons complained of respiratory problems.

Officials yesterday continued to hash out conflicting theories about what transpired inside the building earlier in the day to warrant calling emergency crews.

Trevor Francis, a spokesman at the Commerce Department, said, "We don't know exactly what took place." The "leading theory" later discredited was that a large volume of irradiated mail, containing plastic wrapping or plastic address windows, emitted toxic fumes that made people sick.

But federal law enforcement officials said that could not have been the case because mail irradiated by the U.S. Postal Service does not give off toxic fumes. One official told The Washington Times it was a case of urban legend that gained momentum.

FBI spokesman Chris Murray said, "The FBI assisted a D.C. Fire Department hazardous-material team at the scene, and no hazardous materials were found."

One female employee complaining of extreme nausea and difficulty breathing was taken to George Washington University Hospital, where she spent the night, according to D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services spokesman Alan Etter.

Nine other employees approached an emergency medical services team on the scene complaining of similar symptoms, but none of them went to the hospital, Mr. Etter said.

The hospitalized woman, who authorities declined to name, was in much better condition yesterday, despite complaining that she felt "tired," Mr. Francis said.

U.S. Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans contacted the woman by telephone and she told him she hopes to be going home soon, Mr. Francis said.

Several offices at the building remained closed yesterday and sources inside said 43 workers were advised by Mr. Evans to stay at home for the day.

•Matthew Cella contributed to this report.

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