A sensor at a Department of Defense mailroom in Fairfax County signaled the presence of a suspicious biological substance yesterday, forcing hundreds of workers to remain inside three buildings for almost six hours.
The lockdown came just hours after the mail facility at the Pentagon, about four miles away in Arlington, was evacuated and closed. The Pentagon took that action yesterday morning after tests conducted last week came back positive for anthrax, officials said. Later tests at the Pentagon were negative.
Workers in Baileys Crossroads sign personal information papers in a hallway between two buildings during the lockdown.
(Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)
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).
As many as 800 people, a majority of whom work as government contractors, were kept inside their buildings on Leesburg Pike in Baileys Crossroads 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. 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 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 Baileys Crossroads 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.