Evacuated contractors await word on anthrax

Contractors in the Falls Church, Va., office complex that was closed because of suspected anthrax are anxiously awaiting word about the test results to confirm whether contamination occurred. They're worried about their employees' safety and about how long it will take to get back to the workplace.

Science Applications International Corp. and Advanced Broadband Solutions Inc. had employees evacuated Monday from buildings at Skyline Place at 5109, 5111 and 5113 Leesburg Pike.

Three buildings were shut down Monday night after Defense Department sensor equipment indicated the presence of a biological contaminant at the Pentagon's mail facility on the eighth floor of 5111 Leesburg Pike. Sources said the substance may be anthrax or could be a false positive reading, but that information could not be confirmed.

The buildings remained closed today while FBI and hazmat teams were on the scene to collect test samples and investigate, said Dan Schmidt, a spokesman for Fairfax County Fire & Rescue. The test results may be available as early as tonight.

About 800 people, including government workers and private contractor employees, were detained for several hours and given instructions on cleansing their faces and hands and on anthrax symptoms. They also were asked to provide personal contact information to the Fairfax County Health Department and to report any flu-like symptoms to their physicians, said health department spokeswoman Kimberly Cordero. Another 42 people went through a decontamination procedure conducted by hazmat teams at the scene, Cordero said.

Advanced Broadband Solutions, a Rockville, Md., systems integrator with specialties including chemical sensors, usually has about 30 employees at its office at 5111 Leesburg Pike, one floor below the Pentagon mail facility. On Monday, a "handful" of those workers were affected by the building lockdown through the evening hours, said Kevin Donohue, chief technology officer.

Today, the company's Falls Church workers are on their computers at home or at other office locations.

"It's business as usual, and until it is determined that this is real act, everyone is just waiting for the outcome," Donohue said. "We'd rather it be a false positive. That might indicate they have the sensitivity levels up too high" on the sensors.

Donohue normally works at the Leesburg Pike location, but he left several hours early Monday, before the three Skyline Place buildings were closed and workers detained.

People who evacuated the buildings early, as well as the 800 people who were detained, are being advised by the Fairfax County Health Department to take showers and to bag the clothes they were wearing as precautionary measures, although they are considered "at low risk" of anthrax contamination because they were not in close proximity to the Pentagon mail facility, Cordero said.

The workers also are being advised to call the health department's hotline number for updates and to report any flu-like symptoms to their physicians, Cordero said.

SAIC has 367 workers at the three Skyline Place buildings, said spokeswoman Zuraidah Hoffman. She said employees have been instructed to check in with supervisors today about working at alternative locations.

"We're taking the lead from Charles Smith (the building managers) and from the county officials," Hoffman said. "We have taken many steps to make sure our employees are safe and accounted for."

Aside from the anxiety about employees' health, the employers also are eager to find out how long the buildings will remain closed and, if anthrax or another toxic substance is confirmed, how long the cleanup may take.

"The biggest thing we want to know is what sort of timeframe is reasonable for getting information," said Rajeev Sharma, chief executive of Advanced Broadband. "No one has given us any indication of when it will reopen. ? We want to keep productivity levels at the same level."

If the buildings stay shut for one or two days, there won't be much impact, but if they must remain closed for much longer periods, it will require advanced planning, Donohue said.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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