Postmaster General William F. Bolger said yesterday he expects the cleanup of the fire-ravaged U.S. Postal Service headquarters will be completed by tomorrow and that 2,100 of the 2,800 postal employes in the building may be able to return to their offices by early next week, "contingent upon a safety inspection."
During a tour of the heavily damaged ninth floor of the Postal Service offices at L'Enfant Plaza, Bolger pointed to scaffolds reinforcing the ceiling and said they were needed to shore up one side of the building.
"We have to watch the weight" until engineers can determine whether the floors and ceilings are structurally safe, he said.
An acrid smell of stale smoke hung over the floor; the walls and ceiling were charred. Sheets of plywood covered some of the windows, while other windows blown out during the Oct. 15 blaze were still uncovered. The inside of the ninth floor has been cleared out, leaving the impression of a building under construction.
Bolger said that Blackmon Mooring Steamatic Catastrophe Inc., a Fort Worth firm, has been hired by the Postal Service to complete the cleanup at a maximum cost of $900,000, including restoration of all portions of the building except the ninth floor.
About 750 workers are involved in the operation, Bolger said, cleaning soot off furniture, drying rugs and painting water- and smoke-stained walls throughout the building.
D.C. fire officials have said that damage from the blaze may total $100 million, but Bolger said that figure "sounds extremely high to me. I'm not sure I agree with it at all."
He said that "nobody told me" of extensive water damage to Postal Service computers, which was cited by a D.C. fire investigator as one possible reason that the damage estimate was so high.
Fire officials also said that damage might have been reduced if the building had a sprinkler system, a claim that Bolger said sounded like "Monday morning quarterbacking.
"I don't know if a sprinkler system would have made much difference," he said. However, he said experts are now studying whether to install a sprinkler system "for the safety and health of the people who work here."
Fire officials said yesterday there were smoke detectors near the elevators on each floor and that they sounded in the building the night of the fire. They said the detectors did not ring at fire headquarters, but did automatically shut down the elevators.
The officials said a security guard who heard the alarm searched the building until he found the blaze.
Meanwhile, the contractor in charge of moving furniture and debris from the ninth floor said he was fired from the job yesterday after he complained that working conditions were unsafe.
Jim Riley, owner of Alliance Moving & Storage Inc., a Fairfax County moving contractor, said the firing was precipitated by an argument between him and a Postal Service supervisor he said was pushing workers too hard under unsafe conditions.
"I said to the supervisor , 'You are endangering men's lives by pushing them,' " Riley said. The moving company official said the conditions on the ninth floor included structurally unsafe floors and ceilings, wet floors, dangling wires, poor lighting and unclean air.
He said that a few hours after the argument, he was informed by a Postal Service official that the services of his company -- and the 130 workers on the company's crews -- would no longer be needed. Riley said that the official told him that the firing was due to his argument with the supervisor.
Postal Service spokeswoman Mary J. Layton disputed Riley's assertions, saying that "the basic problem was that the firm couldn't handle the job in terms of the time frame and the quantities of furniture and debris that had to be moved . . . . . This job was apparently too big."