Washington postal worker Helen Lewis pocketed her three-day supply of antibiotics yesterday morning with an unease that was familiar and frightening.
Lewis lost two co-workers to anthrax in fall 2001, when letters laced with bacteria spores passed through the Brentwood postal facility en route to congressional offices. She now sorts mail at a plant on V Street NE, a building shuttered yesterday after signs of anthrax were detected at two Department of Defense mail facilities that it serves.
U.S. Postal Service workers from the V Street facility arrive at D.C. General Hospital to be screened for anthrax.
(Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
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By last evening, officials declared that they were confident that there was no public health threat. But for employees of the Postal Service, especially those, such as Lewis, who had been through this before, the fear was very real. "We're on the front lines," said Lewis, a 29-year Postal Service worker.
When she reported to work about 1 a.m., Lewis said, she was handed an envelope filled with doses of Cipro, an antibiotic. Through the night and for most of the day, she wondered where the suspicious mail might have originated and why employees were allowed inside the building, even after mail had stopped going out.
Larry Powell, 55, a postal worker who also works at the V Street site, said the announcement that the latest tests were negative was bittersweet. He was skeptical about the accuracy of the latest test and expressed frustration over trying to establish a normal work routine amid anthrax alerts. "You want to go to work and know that everything is safe and secure," the Postal Service veteran said.
Powell took sick leave the past two days after getting a swollen jaw. The timing of his ailment caused him some concern. He said Washington postal workers have had to cope with a new reality since the 2001 anthrax attacks. "It's just never going to be the same," said Powell, of Capitol Heights. "We're volunteers in terms of service, but we didn't choose to put our lives on the line, not as postal employees. We never thought that would be a risk that we took."
Employees of other federal agencies, which also receive mail through the V Street facility, also were worried. Police and fire officials were called to the Internal Revenue Service headquarters on Constitution Avenue NW in the morning to examine an envelope containing a suspicious black powder. Fire officials said it probably was a substance similar to the poison strychnine, and transferred it to the FBI for more testing.
LaVerne Johnson, an IRS employee, spotted a police car and a television truck near the loading dock on her way back from a midmorning errand. She felt a sharp twinge of fear, a feeling she said she's had often since Sept. 11, 2001.
"If you're a federal employee, you say your prayers when you arrive at work," she said. "After you leave home in the morning, you don't know whether you're going to be home in the evening or not."
Like some of her colleagues, Johnson now keeps a change of clothes at work, along with bottled water and a battery-powered radio, just in case. Fire drills are much more serious affairs.
Johnson said she dreaded riding the Metro home to Oxon Hill after Sept. 11, fearful that a terror attack would leave her trapped in the underground tunnels. She was thrilled to move to the District and begin commuting by bus.
Reminders of how the world has changed are easy to find near the IRS -- starting with the giant flower pots outside the entrance that act as barriers to potential truck bombs. Even at the Old Post Office Building around the corner, people have to walk through a metal detector to get to the food court.
The possibility of new anthrax contamination was especially disturbing for postal workers Leroy Richmond and David Hose, both sickened in the 2001 attacks and still unable to work.
"I can't stand up for too long. I can't walk too far," said Hose, 62, who worked at the State Department's diplomatic mail facility in Sterling. "It has been a nightmare."
Richmond, 60, who worked at Brentwood, said he suffers from chronic fatigue, memory loss and depression. He said he was glad that the V Street facility was quickly shut down and that workers were given antibiotics immediately.
"There is more urgency," he said.
Staff writers Paul Schwartzman and Del Quentin Wilber contributed to this report.