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Making deliveries in the days of anthrax



By Ron Cassie

Frederick News-Post, August 04, 2008
   

In October 2001, I was a bike messenger living in an efficiency near the Senate building where an envelope containing powdered anthrax was sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's office.

The anonymous mailing of toxic spores to Capitol Hill shook not just congressmen and staffers, but residents across the city as each box, overnight package and envelope was perceived as potentially life-threatening. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, many people I knew worried about their jobs as tourism and commerce withered.

Not only the mail that arrived at my apartment -- late for months -- was suddenly considered dangerous (much of it came through the Brentwood Road post office, where two workers died), but so were the deliveries I picked up and dropped off 25 or 30 times a day.

Kenyetta Alston, a friend who then worked in the mailroom of Dewey Ballantine, a large law firm, reminded me Friday that for six months after the attack, anyone opening incoming mail there was required to wear gloves and masks. Alfred Ward, a mailroom supervisor at another large Washington office, said one former employee came close to tears for the next few weeks each time he opened mail.

About month before the anthrax episode ratcheted up the paranoia in Washington, I watched the first hijacked plane hit New York on CNN as I got my bike ready for work. Pedaling directly in front of the White House soon afterward on the way to grab my first delivery at 1775 Pennsylvania Ave., I wondered where all the people outside the gates were going on such a beautiful morning.

Reaching Dewey Ballantines' mailroom, I heard about a second plane. Not longer after a third plane, believed to be intended for the White House, was flown into the Pentagon, just across the Potomac from where I stood.

The city felt like it seized up and stopped functioning for a while. Daily red and orange terror alerts (whatever they meant) soon followed.

"It was a scary time, when the anthrax stuff happened," Ward said. "Everybody was already freaked out because of 9/11."

Pat Riggin, co-owner of Real Courier, recalled that the Hart Senate Office Building was closed until late January 2002, after a long decontamination.

"We couldn't deliver any sealed envelopes anywhere on Capitol Hill," Riggin said.

Did he worry about losing his livelihood?

"It crossed my mind," he said.

Theo Harding, owner of Capitol Hill Delivery, had to lay off his entire office staff.

One friend decided to move. A buddy who lived in the apartment next door was laid off from his hotel concierge position in the aftermath of both episodes. Once his unemployment ended he lost the apartment. The anthrax incident on top of the 9/11 attacks was a big blow for a lot folks I knew -- none of whom lost their compassion for Pentagon victims and postal workers who lost their lives.

Friday, the news that suspected anthrax perpetrator Bruce Ivins was dead brought back unsettling images of hazardous materials workers decontaminating the Hart Building, mailroom workers in masks and my neighbor struggling to find new work in a changed city.

Whether Ivins was guilty or not of anthrax attack, I'm not sure those living in Washington will ever completely recover the sense of physical security we had prior to 2001. But while speaking to several old friends this week, I marveled a little recalling the grace and humility that nearly everyone I came into contact with carried themselves during what proved to be a very extended crisis. And that gives me hope.