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