WASHINGTON – Hundreds of Maryland-based Marines and sailors are scouring Capitol Hill office buildings, after the poisonous agent ricin was found in the Senate majority leader’s mailroom this week.
Members of the specially trained Chemical Biological Incident Response Force, or CBIRF, have been rotating through 24-hour shifts on the Hill since they were called up from their home base in Indian Head on Tuesday evening.
The teams, which are trained to respond to biological, chemical and radiological emergencies, are helping U.S. Capitol Police, the Environmental Protection Agency and the FBI as the ricin investigation continues at three Senate office buildings that have been closed since Monday.
CBIRF units are in charge of collecting unopened mail from Senate offices and handing it over to the EPA for testing. They have also set up decontamination tents where they clean themselves, police officers and other investigators as they leave the contaminated buildings.
“What happens is they strip down and step into a 6-by-6 pit and they get washed off with a basic bleach solution,” said spokesman Lt. Paul Cabellon.
All three Senate office buildings were shut down Monday after a grainy powder, which later proved to be the poison ricin, was discovered on a mail machine in the mailroom for Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., the Senate majority leader.
Capitol Police and FBI officials said Thursday that they have not yet determined how the ricin was delivered to the office. Although an office intern discovered the poison on a mailing machine, investigators said they have not even determined if it was delivered through the mail.
“The investigation is still really in its infancy,” said Michael Mason, assistant director of the FBI’s Washington field office.
Mason did say that investigators have found no link between the ricin discovered in the Senate’s Dirksen office building Monday and ricin that the Secret Service intercepted on its way to the White House in November.
Capitol Police said they expected the Russell office building and the Hart building — where Maryland’s senators have their offices — to open Thursday or Friday. The Dirksen building will reopen Monday, they said.
This is not the first time Senate offices have been shut by a biological threat — or the first time CBIRF has been called in to help clean up. Units from Indian Head were called up in 2001 when a letter containing anthrax was opened in another senator’s office.
Created in 1995 to assist local, state and federal agencies with chemical and biological threats, CBIRF spent three weeks in 2001 testing Senate offices for the deadly anthrax bacterium.
Marines in the special unit serve at every State of the Union address and at high-security events like the Olympics. They also train monthly with first responder units across the country.
More than 100 of the 800-member force are kept on alert at the Naval Surface Warfare Center at Indian Head, ready to go within an hours notice, said Col. Dwight “Ike” Trafton, commanding officer of the unit. He said the Marines will stay on Capitol Hill until the mission is complete, which is “whenever the Capitol Police tell us to go home.”
-30- CNS 02-05-04