By Candia Dames
WASHINGTON – Sen. Paul Sarbanes didn’t remember leaving his wastepaper basket on top of a briefcase when the Hart Senate Office Building was closed by an anthrax release in October, but everything else was “frozen in time.”
The plants were all there. The familiar impressionist paintings were still on the walls, as were the Oct. 14 newspapers carrying the headline, “Anthrax Confirmed in 3rd State.”
“It’s good to be back,” said Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat, moments after he reopened his third-floor office at 12:15 p.m. Tuesday.
While Sarbanes and his staff were filing back into their office Tuesday, Maryland’s other Democratic senator was waiting for word that her office in Hart was safe for occupancy.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski’s office was one of 13 offices on a separate schedule for reopening because traces of anthrax had been found there, Mikulski spokeswoman Amy Hagovsky said. Mikulski’s seventh-floor office sits above the office of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat who was sent an anthrax-tainted letter in October.
A sign on Daschle’s door Tuesday said a mid-March reopening is expected. Hagovsky said it will be at least another several weeks before Mikulski’s office reopens and that about 30 staffers, meanwhile, remain in cramped quarters in the Russell building and state offices, while others are working from home.
More than 25 Sarbanes’ staffers who had spent the past three months “piled on top of one another” in offices scattered through the Russell building filed back into their Hart office Tuesday, carrying boxes of files past a sign that read “Open for Business.”
Ed Fogle, who works for the Architect to the Capitol, said he was pleased to see that staff members retained their sense of humor through the ordeal.
“They were squirreled away to very small office spaces, but they rose to the occasion,” Fogle said.
In Sarbanes’ office, one staff member said she couldn’t remember how to retrieve her voice messages. Savoring a bit more legroom, others stretched, smiled and cheered.
While pots of withered plants could be seen in Mikulski’s office, strangled by the closure, a Sarbanes staffer was surprised to find, “My plant survived three months of no watering.”
“You’re kidding,” a co-worker responded, as Sarbanes made the rounds to ensure that his staff was comfortable.
“It looks OK and it smells OK,” said Sarbanes, who carried a letter from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Office of Attending Physician ensuring that the Hart building was “safe for reoccupation and poses no public health risk.”
But Sarbanes was quick to note that “life isn’t risk-free.”
He said he was confident that authorities will eventually find out who mailed the anthrax letters.
“I think the important message here is that we continued to worked throughout the three months. We didn’t let them stop us,” he said.