Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Pentagon Mail Facility Tests Positive/Negative for Anthrax

Update: Second Test comes back negative. Determined to be false alarm.

Pentagon Mail Facility Tests Positive for Anthrax
Officials Trying to Determine if Bacteria Were Live

By Jamie Stockwell, Allan Lengel and Fred Barbash
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, March 15, 2005; 11:49 AM

Samples taken at a Pentagon mail facility have tested positive for anthrax, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services reported today, but officials do not yet know if the anthrax bacteria were live and thus capable of transmitting disease.

The spokesman, Bill Hall, said that further tests are being conducted at Fort Detrick to determine if the anthrax was live or if it was just a component of anthrax. Such testing normally takes 24 to 48 hours, but initial tests may be available by this afternoon. The anthrax confirmation was done through intricate polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing overnight and confirmed the alert initially reported by a defense contractor laboratory in Richmond last week.

Federal, state and local health officials are preparing to release a health bulletin to doctors, clinics and hospitals this morning to be on the alert for patients with possible anthrax exposure, Hall said.

In addition, federal health officials have recommended a course of antibiotics for about 200 workers at the facility in the District that processes Department of Defense and other government mail. They also shut down the mail center, on V St., NE, which means that little government mail will be moving for the time being, according to postal service spokesman Gerry McKiernan.

No biodetection system is in place at V Street, said McKiernan, because any mail arriving there goes first to New Jersey for irradiation before being sent back for processing. Thus, he said, V Street facility only handles decontaminated mail.

Postal officials, as well as officials of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, stressed that so far, no person has been found with anthrax or any other symptom of contamination. McKiernan also said that the Postal Service has reported no positive tests for anthrax anywhere in its system in the past two weeks.

Kathy Harben, a spokeswoman for the CDC in Atlanta, said that officials were recommending a three-day course of antibiotics for the V Street employees "out of an abundance of caution."

The disclosure meant that three separate mail facilities are now being evaluated for possible biological contamination -- the V Street site, a center at the Pentagon, and a Department of Defense mailroom on Leesburg Pike in Fairfax County.

Concerns were raised about the Pentagon mail facility after tests last week came back positive for anthrax, officials said. Later tests there were negative, but officials yesterday closed the facility and evacuated employees there.

Shortly afterward, a sensor at the Department of Defense mailroom in Fairfax signaled the presence of a suspicious biological substance, forcing hundreds of workers to remain inside the three buildings in that complex for almost six hours.

The Pentagon and Defense Department facilities remained closed today as officials continued investigating.

"People do not need to report to work," Dan Schmidt, a spokesman for the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department told Channel 4 news.

"We do not know what it was that activated" the sensor alarms, he said, noting that the department had conducted precautionary decontamination of 42 people last night.

"These buildings are closed today," he said, and will remain closed until the investigation is complete.

A Pentagon spokeswoman referred questions to Fairfax County authorities.

Spokesmen for the Pentagon and the Fairfax fire department initially said the events at the Pentagon and in the Baileys Crossroads section of Fairfax were unrelated. But last night, a Virginia official said the events might be linked. In addition, emergency officials responding to the Fairfax incident said they were not aware of the Pentagon evacuation, causing Virginia's top homeland security official to say that coordination by the Defense Department would have to be reviewed.

Authorities said that there is no imminent danger to the public, that Defense Department mail is irradiated and that new detection systems worked. But state and local officials remained concerned that 3 1/2 years after the attack on the Pentagon and anthrax mailings that affected local postal facilities, coordination did not work smoothly yesterday.

"Clearly, the big question that's got to be answered is when did the DOD make the notification and did they make all appropriate notifications to make sure all federal, state and local players were aware of the problem?" said George W. Foresman, homeland security adviser to Gov. Mark R. Warner (D), said yesterday evening.

As many as 800 people, a majority of whom work as government contractors, were kept inside their buildings on Leesburg Pike after a sensor was activated about 2:30 p.m., a fire department official said.

Hazardous materials teams descended on the area and immediately secured the buildings, prohibiting people from leaving or entering, said Lt. Raul Castillo, a spokesman with the Fairfax fire department. Speaking yesterday, he said initial tests indicated only that a "protein" was detected inside the eighth-floor mailroom at Skyline Five Place and added that a filter was taken to the U.S. Army Research Institute for Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick in Frederick County for further testing.

A Pentagon spokesman said yesterday the Fairfax incident appeared to be unrelated. "There is no connection that I've been made aware of," Glenn Flood said. "I have received no information about that."

But a source familiar with the incidents said that mail goes from the Pentagon site to the Leesburg Pike site. This could account for the positive readings at both sites within a brief period.

Fire officials began allowing people to leave the buildings about 7:30 p.m., after directing those inside over intercoms to wash their faces and hands. Fire officials said 42 people were decontaminated.

"I was ready to walk out about 4 p.m., and they said to me, 'You can't leave because there's a hazmat situation,' " said Aaron Burrus, 22, of Stafford, who works for the Defense Department on the first floor.

He said people passed the time walking around, talking to one another on their respective floors. He watched TV, but there was nothing to eat. "I don't think that anyone was afraid. We heard several rumors: anthrax positive; anthrax negative."

Keith Kreger, a government contractor who works at Skyline Five Place, was nearing the end of his workday. But along with about 30 co-workers, Kreger was unable to leave.

"I heard about it from an e-mail, that a suspicious letter was mailed to the mailroom. The ventilation system was shut off, which I found out about because our door slammed shut and then it got really hot," Kreger said in a telephone interview.

An e-mail from the building's management was sent at 3:27 p.m. asking tenants to be aware of suspicious people or packages because of a "potential biological threat."

After a while, employees inside Kreger's office grew bored. One of them opened a bottle of white wine that was left over from a holiday party. Others watched television and played video games.

As the evening wore on, apprehension and fear set in.

"Ever since Sept. 11, I've been more aware," Kreger said about three hours after the building was locked down. "It's definitely creepy."

An announcement came over the building's intercom about 8 p.m. directing employees to the bathrooms on their floors. They were told to wash their faces and hands.

The hot water was quickly used up, Kreger wrote in an e-mail a few minutes later. "People are starting to get a bit worried -- as am I," he wrote. "People in the halls don't even want to touch the door knobs to get back into our offices."

At 8:30 p.m., Kreger's office, on the seventh floor, was allowed to leave.

Castillo said that about 3,000 people work in the three buildings that were locked down and that as many as 800 were inside when an air filter designed to detect foreign agents was activated.

An alarm sounded, and moments later, hazardous materials crews responded to the scene, with between 30 and 40 emergency technicians combing through the eight-story building to conduct tests, he said.

Kreger and all those who left the building were given a sheet of instructions from the Fairfax County Health Department. They were told to wash their hands, face and other exposed skin, as well as jewelry and eyeglasses. They were to go straight home, take off their clothes and put them inside a plastic bag, which they were told to tie tightly and keep in a safe place. They were to shower and shampoo their hair.

But before leaving the building, all of those who were locked down were asked to fill out a detailed form that questioned them about their location inside the building. They were told to await further instructions from their bosses or the health department, including whether they will need medication.

Pentagon employees who may have come in contact with the mail also were being advised to take precautions, including providing nasal swabs for cultures and being provided with a three-day regimen of antibiotics. The irradiation to which the mail is subjected is designed to kill anthrax spores. Although the most recent reported tests at the Pentagon were negative, officials said they intended to conduct more detailed analysis as a precaution.

A source familiar with the events said officials were concerned with the Pentagon's decision to distribute antibiotics to its mail workers without the knowledge of local officials dealing with the Fairfax incident.