Raleigh Post Office Remains Closed After Anthrax Scare
Posted October 24, 2001 6:27 a.m. EDT
RALEIGH — Haz-Mat teams spent several hours Tuesday at the Century Postal Station building on Raleigh's Fayetteville Street mall, where an envelope opened on the second floor of the building contained a suspicious powdery substance, according to officials. Preliminary tests suggest the substance was
anthrax, but the facility will remain closed until final results are available.
The people at the federal office building are trained to look for suspicious mail. In fact, their mail is X-rayed daily as a safety precaution, and yet the incident was hardly routine for postal employees, as anthrax anxiety hit home for them.
They were in the midst of doing their jobs when dozens of postal employees and federal staffers were evacuated from the building after a bankruptcy court clerk opened a manila envelope with a south Florida postmark that she feared might be contaminated.
"One of the workers had opened the envelope and it had what appeared to be a suspicious substance," said Raleigh Fire Chief Tommie Styons. "We are testing that. It is a routine test. It's being taken to the federal facility, to the state lab, just to make sure that we're expediting this as quickly as possible."
"They indicated to us that it was probably routine court findings that were probably in an envelope, but when they looked at it, it had been opened. And when she opened it up, this powdery substance fell out," says labor department employee Mary Akinkuotu.
The bankruptcy court employee who opened the envelope, a U.S. Marshal, and as many as three postal workers handled the piece of mail.
Crews collected samples while anxious employees waited outside, and workers who may have handled the mail washed their hands in an anti-bacterial solution.
The leader of the postal union wants to make sure those employees are also tested for anthrax exposure.
And that is not his only concern. Employees in the first-floor post office say they were evacuated after everyone else left the building. In fact, postal employees say they found out about the evacuation by accident.
"One of the employees went out on a smoke break and saw other employees heading out of the building," says Ajamu Dillahunt, the local postal union leader. "That's how he was alerted to it."
The U.S. Marshal's office handles security at the facility, and authorities with that office say every employee on every floor was told to leave at the same time.
Postal workers say they live with the fear of anthrax every day now, and incidents like this one only intensify the anxiety.
"All of our employees think about it every day all the time, and of course their suspicions are raised now by every piece of mail they see," says Dillahunt.
The building was evacuated around 9:45 a.m., after the discovery was made, and one block of Martin Street temporarily became a decontamination zone.
The building will not be re-opened until investigators know without a doubt what the substance was.
The first floor of the building houses the post office. The second and third floors are home to the bankruptcy court. And there are other federal offices on the third and fourth floors, including the labor department.
U.S. Senator John Edwards, displaced by an anthrax scare in D.C., also has an office in the building.
"We were prepared, given the procedure we were given, to follow the normal protocol and that's what we did," says Edwards aide Brad Thompson.
About three hours after evacuating the building, employees were told to go home, and take a shower, wash their clothes in Clorox and be on the look-out for any flu-like symptoms over the next few days.
Emergency management officials hope to have the final tests results back on Wednesday.