Tear gas - a lingering reminder of Thursday's explosion - drifted through the offices and corridors of the District of Columbia's Municipal Center yesterday, occasionally engulfing a harried police dispatcher or city telephone operator.
"I toured the building at 7 o'clock this morning," Sam D. Starobin, the city's general services director, said yesterday afternoon. "I cried accasionally, but then I frequently cry." Starobin, whose agency oversees the city's buildings, often finds himself caught between one city crisis and the next.
For many of the nearly 2,000 D.C. employees who normally work at the Municipal Center, the explosion provided a four-day holiday. Only skeleton crews staffed offices in the building at 300 Indiana Ave. NW yesterday. Other employees were given the day off. They will also have a holiday Monday, Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday.
The entire, six-story Municipal Center was evacuated Thursday after an accidental explosion in a weapons storage room set off a fire and a series of ther explosions that quickly spread tear gas fumes throughout the building. The Municipal Center houses police headquarters and offices for city tax, motor vehicles and other agencies.
D.C. Police Chief Burtell M. Jefferson said yesterday that an investigation into the cause of the accidental tear gas explosion would not be completed until next week. He also said that the police department would step up-its efforts to find a new location for the weapons storage room to avoid another similar incident.
Starobin noted that the Municipal Center's ventilation system had been turned on full blast in hopes of clearing away the biting tear gas fumes by Tuesday. An inspection, he said, found that the main damage from the fire and explosions had been confined to the second-floor weapons storage room. No overall estimate of the cost of repairs was available yesterday, although police previously put losses in damaged weapons, ammunition and other equipment at $300,000 or more.
Fourteen city employees were at work yesterday at the major's command center on the Municipal Center's fifth floor. They were collecting and disseminating information about yesterday's snowstorm. Although they had taken off thei gas masks, command center workers occasionally got a stiff whiff of the fumes. "Every time somebody walks across the carpet, it stirs it up again," Arlene Billings, a command center aide, observed.
About 25 police dispatchers were at work in the Municipal Center, sending out squad cars as reports of crime came in. The dispatchers' room had been aired out, largely ending one form of discomfort but causing another. "It's very cold," noted one dispatcher, Officer Charles L. Dettman, "but the smell is gone."
Elsewhere in the building, a few telephone operators staffed police and city government swtichboards, located in rooms where the odor of Thursday's gas was only faint. Some tax and treasury employees were at their desks, partly to see that the city's payrool was completed on time. Others picked up work and took it home with them.
Most of the special police squads that normally operate from the Municipal Center moved to makeshift offices elsewhere in the city. Homicide detectives shifted to the medical examiner's headquarters. Other investigative units took up quarters at court building. Some police officials spent part of the day away from the Municipal Center at ceremonies for their new chief, Jefferson, who was sworn in yesterday morning.
Police have insisted since the explosion occurred that there had been no letup in the city's capacity to combat crime. Citywide crime statistics for Thursday were not available yesterday, however, because the police officials who normally anaylze crime trends were kept away from their Municipal Center offices by the lingering fumes.
Although some city officials expressed hopes that the Municipal Center' stench would vanish by Tuesday, others voiced doubts. They noted that some of the fumes were emitted by tear gas particles, not easily swept away by the building's ventilation system.