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Senators, staff return to find time stood still

After the anthrax cleanup, they find a workplace that smelled, well, "new,'' with exhausted fax machines and stale cups of coffee.

©Los Angeles Times

January 23, 2002

After the anthrax cleanup, they find a workplace that smelled, well, "new," with exhausted fax machines and stale cups of coffee.

WASHINGTON -- When Dianne Feinstein's staff walked back into their third-floor suite Tuesday morning, it was as though time had stood still. The calendars were turned to Oct. 17, the day the California Democrat and 49 of her colleagues were evacuated from the Hart Senate Office Building in the throes of an anthrax attack.

The fax machine had spent weeks spitting out a mountain of missives that no one was there to read, finally sputtering to a stop when the paper ran out. A wooden wall of shoebox-sized slots was stuffed with correspondence three months old. Five hundred fifty e-mails had amassed in one staffer's computer. Most of the plants were dead.

"The only thing that kept moving was the clocks," said Jim Hock, Feinstein's press secretary. He studied a curious residue on a piece of paper that sat on a desk during the cleanup, which was ordered after a letter laced with anthrax was opened in the office of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.

Tuesday's return marked a passage for Washington as the million-square-foot complex reopened for business.

When the doors closed that October day, no one imagined it would be for so long. Thirteen Senate offices were ultimately deemed contaminated in an attack that sent deadly spores through the U.S. mail, killing five people across the East.

Left behind in the rush to get out were senators' briefcases, computer files, personal checkbooks and half-empty cups of coffee. The Washington work force that serves half the U.S. Senate was abruptly displaced, flung all over the Capitol complex. Republicans lent space to Democrats, and vice versa. Workers made do with borrowed computers and not enough phones.

"Wooo-hoooo!" rejoiced Michele Hall, communications director for Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, as she walked back in, a trolley of boxes, files and a roll of wrapping paper in tow. "I cannot put into words how good it is to be back. It feels like going into the dorms after summer vacation -- except it smells a lot like a swimming pool."

The smell was unmistakably abnormal and people sniffed the air as they cleared the security X-ray machines, endeavoring to describe it.

"It smells like bleach," said one.

"Like a new plastic toy."

"It's that new car smell."

It might have been the remains of the chlorine dioxide gas used to decontaminate the place, or maybe the thorough scrubbing delivered this weekend by work crews trying to restore a building weeks in hibernation. Whatever it was, it was giving some people a headache and others a sore throat, and some aides said they were less concerned about the anthrax than the stuff used to kill it.

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