While the Senate buildings begin to reopen today after the toxin ricin was found in a suite of offices used by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) Monday, students interning in senators’ offices are finding themselves with a few days off.
Many were surprised and alarmed by the news, and their thoughts drifted back to October 2001, when anthrax-laced letters were sent to Sens. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.)
For interns - who are often the ones handling an office’s mail - staying home from work left an unsettling feeling in their stomaches. Some shrugged their shoulders, since they weren’t personally affected other than a “government snow day,” but The Washington Post later reported that an intern for Frist was the first to discover the powder at about 3 p.m. Monday.
The substance went undetected through the Senate’s mail security system, which was increased after the anthrax attacks in October
2001. The Post reported that
the federal government’s mail undergoes irradiation to kill bacteria, but this process failed to have
an effect on ricin.
“Every time you enter the office buildings and you go through metal detectors, you are constantly reminded of your safety,” said Zach Bexter, a freshman in the School of Public Affairs who interns for Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.).
While opening the mail for the office, however, Bexter is often reminded of the anthrax attacks. He often puts his concerns in the back of his mind, but there are constant reminders, he said. Like the time this summer, during one of his first days interning, when he saw a gas mask just sitting on a desk.
“It was weird to see it,” Bexter said, “but you have to keep it out of your mind, if you want to do your work or get anything done.”
When junior Jared Hall, an intern for Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), arrived at a staff entrance to the Russell Senate Building Tuesday morning, he was surprised to see a sign saying the offices were closed.
It took a while, Hall said, but then he connected the news he had heard the night before - that ricin, a toxin that when ingested or inhaled, can kill someone within 72 hours. And while it is not as easily distributed as anthrax, there is no known cure for it.
“It made me realize that I am in the center of where all these things are happening,” Hall said.
Dana Begley, who graduated in December from SPA, agree. Working on the Hill is a mix of caution out-driven by determination, she said. Currently a legislative director in the Russell Senate building, Begley began as an intern in July.
“I’m more cautious,” Begley said, “but I don’t want to think about it constantly.”
Growing up right outside New York City, however, Begley often worries more about her family’s safety from terrorists than hers working within the Senate.
Capturing how many others on Capitol Hill felt, Begley said, “You don’t want it to let it stop you.”