The Hart Senate Building is anthrax-free and will reopen Friday. Tighter baggage security may cause airport delays. Firefighters are protesting a "politically correct" memorial. Punxsutawney Phil gets a security overhaul. Sept. 11 families find sympathy online.
Senate Building Safe From Anthrax
W A S H I N G T O N, Jan. 16 — The Hart Senate Office Building has been declared free of anthrax and will reopen Friday for the first time since October, when an anthrax-tainted letter was opened in Majority Leader Tom Daschle's office, The Associated Press learned today. An e-mail memo being circulated in the Senate says the Centers for Disease Control and the Environmental Protection Agency have certified that the building is safe after weeks of decontamination procedures. "We expect the Hart building to reopen at noon on Friday, Jan. 18, 2002," said the e-mail memo, which was addressed to all senators and Senate staff. The memo was confirmed by two Senate staff sources and by an electronic message from the Senate sergeant-at-arms. "The cleanup achieved the goal of eliminating viable anthrax spores detected in the Hart building, and that it is now safe and clean to release to the Architect of the Capitol for rehabilitation and subsequent re-occupancy," the message says. A Daschle spokeswoman referred questions to Capitol Police spokesman Dan Nichols, who did not immediately return telephone calls. A letter opened in Daschle's office on Oct. 15 exposed more than two dozen people to anthrax spores and led to the closure of the Hart Senate Office Building. Cleanup and testing efforts included floor vacuuming, wiping of desks, tables, walls and other surfaces, sample swabs taken from monitor screens and air conditioning grills, air sampling and the use of chlorine dioxide liquid, chlorine dioxide gas and anti-bacterial foam. "Senator Daschle's suite where the anthrax spill occurred was fumigated successfully with chlorine dioxide gas," a second memo from the Senate sergeant-at-arms office says. The chlorine gas has been removed and rendered nontoxic, the second memo said. Senators will be briefed Thursday on the reopening, the memo said.
—The Associated Press
More Delays From Baggage Screening Law?
D E N V E R, Jan. 16 — Across the country, more airline passengers could find themselves standing in line or sitting on planes delayed at the gate when a federal law requiring the screening of all checked baggage for bombs takes effect Friday.
The law requires airlines to use any of four methods: hand searches, bomb detection machines, bomb-sniffing dogs or the matching of every piece of luggage to a passenger on board a plane.
Currently, less than 10 percent of the 1.4 billion bags flown in domestic airliners' holds annually are screened for explosives by such methods.
For security reasons, airline officials declined to comment on how they plan to comply on Friday. But airport officials around the country said most airlines apparently will use bag-matching.
The technique is designed to prevent someone from checking a bag with a bomb and never boarding the aircraft. The approach already is used on international flights.
The precaution means that if a passenger fails to board a plane, or gets off just before takeoff, airline workers will have to climb into the hold to remove his or her luggage. That could create delays in pulling away from the gate.
The measure would also fail to stop a suicide bomber. In addition, plans call for requiring the bag match to be done when a passenger first boards a plane, and not done a second time for a connecting flight, said a government source, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Passenger advocate David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, said that concession would mean only an incremental improvement in security. But he said it could go a long way toward reducing the possibility of long check-in lines.
"Direct checking would cause enormous lines and delays for passengers at a time when we're trying to get people back on airplanes and get the airlines healthy again," Stempler said. "Long lines at airports would have turned a lot more people away from air travel."
The baggage searches could also contribute to delays. For example, passengers will have to be present during hand searches of their luggage, Denver airport spokesman Chuck Cannon said. Passengers will be taken to private rooms or screened-off areas for such searches.
"If the result is a slight increase in security and a huge increase in passenger processing times, it's going to be detrimental," said aviation consultant Nick Lacey, a former director of flight standards for the Federal Aviation Administration.
The stepped-up security after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks resulted, at least initially, in long lines and hours-long delays for travelers.
Under the new law signed by President Bush in November, airlines will be responsible for security until Feb. 17, when the burden shifts to the federal government.
Airlines, airports and the government also are determining how best to meet a year-end deadline in the law to screen all baggage for explosives with $1 million, van-size explosives-detection machines. About 160 are in use, and at least 2,000 more will have to be bought by the government, FAA officials have said.
San Francisco airport spokesman Ron Wilson said all airlines at his airport have indicated they plan to use bag matching to meet Friday's deadline. "It's either do that or don't fly," he said.
Kevin Dillon, director of New Hampshire's Manchester Airport, warned of the danger of relying too heavily on baggage screening.
"We should also be focusing on other things — immigration laws, passenger profiles, interrogation techniques," he said. "There are so many things this country needs to be looking at in terms of aviation security."
—The Associated Press
Petition Protests Firefighter Statue
N E W Y O R K, Jan 16 — A Brooklyn firefighter is petitioning the Fire Department to drop plans for a controversial statue.
Steve Cassidy, of Engine 236, faxed the petition to firehouses today asking firefighters to protest the sculpture based on a Sept. 11 photo of city firemen Dan McWilliams, George Johnson and Billy Eisengrein raising a flag amid the rubble at the World Trade Center.
The firefighters are white. But the statue depicts the firefighters as white, black and Hispanic men.
The Fire Department issued a statement today saying that those who gave their lives that day were of many races and ethnicities and the decision was made to honor everyone — not any specific individual or individuals.
Cassidy said the petition will be sent to Mayor Bloomberg. The mayor's office declined to comment on the petition.
The $180,000 statue is being paid for by Forest City Ratner Companies.
A clay model of the statue, created by StudioEis in Brooklyn, was unveiled late last month. Studio director Ivan Schwartz said the decision to portray different races was made by the Fire Department, Forest City Ratner, the studio and the foundry.
But many current and former firefighters are calling the statue an example of political correctness run amok and an attempt to rewrite history.
—The Associated Press
Groundhog May See Shadow, Security
P U N X S U T A W N E Y, Pa., Jan. 16 — When Punxsutawney Phil pops his head out of his hole on Feb. 2 to tell people whether or not they will experience six more weeks of winter, the famous groundhog may see more than his shadow.
Because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, security will be stepped up at Phil's home, Gobbler's Knob.
"They'll be checking people a little more, naturally, the way conditions are," said Barney Stockdale of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club.
People with backpacks or bags will be subject to search when they go to Gobbler's Knob.
"We'll have a good contingency of troopers there this year to ensure everyone's safety," said State Police spokesman Jamie LeVeir.
The tight security on Groundhog Day won't be the only new thing in Punxsutawney this year. The Punxsutawney Borough Council on Monday voted to allow a charity to serve beer downtown during the festivities, despite objections that the fund-raiser would encourage drinking and rowdy behavior.
Cystic Fibrosis Foundation will put up a tent large enough to fit 1,200 people and charge $10 admission.
Groundhog Day organizers banned drinking on Gobbler's Knob in 1996.
—The Associated Press
Sept. 11 Families Turn to Web Site
B O S T O N, Jan. 16 — There are still days when Helen Simpkin hardly feels like getting out of bed, when the dark blanket that fell over her life on Sept. 11 is too heavy to push aside.
On those days, there's a place to turn where everyone knows just how she feels.
Simpkin, 35, sits down at the computer in her Cottekill, N.Y., home and logs onto the network that's been her lifeline since her sister Jane's flight crashed into the World Trade Center.
With a few keystrokes, she joins hundreds of people in similar pain at the Families of Sept. 11, a nonprofit advocacy organization formed by and for the survivors.
"It's absolutely vital," Simpkin says. "Even on the worst days, I know at least I can go on the Web site and talk to other people who are feeling the same way as me."
Members share news clips and legal advice, suggestions on visiting Ground Zero and navigating the red tape of charities and government agencies.
The Web site — http://www.familiesofseptember11.org — also offers simple words of solace and support to newfound friends brought together under the most tragic of circumstances.
"There were some heartbreaking messages around Christmastime," says Marilyn Trudeau of Lincoln, R.I., who lost her daughter, Amy Jarrett, a flight attendant on United Flight 175. "One mother wrote about taking out the Christmas decorations and the emotions arising within her as she was trying to do the normal things you do at Christmas."
Families of Sept. 11 Inc. began at an October meeting of victims' families in Boston. Carie Lemack, 26, of Framingham, stood up and announced plans to create an online community of families, a secure place where mourners could go and speak openly about their pain.
"We realized that we needed to get together and help each other out because there was no benevolent group looking out for us," says Lemack, whose mother, Judy Larocque, was a passenger on American Flight 11.
In the months since, the group has grown to include more than 300 survivors in 26 states, and it has become much more than a simple e-mail chat.
The family members have become increasingly outspoken on a range of political issues, including the distribution of compensation funds to victims' families and the debate over whether to create a memorial at Ground Zero.
Lemack is vigilant over who participates in the dialogue. Prospective members first join the Yahoo e-mail group and get a password, and then they have to pass Lemack's muster. She asks them to identify whom they lost in the tragedy before agreeing to activate their account.
"It seems intrusive, but it's essential that it only be open to family members," she says.
Once in, they can read and send messages for the whole group — often as many as 30 per day — or they can send mail directly to individual members.
"It's grown so fast, and there's so much to do," says Lemack. "Now we have to deal with a lot of the logistical stuff. Little by little we'll get there."
Already, their public suffering has earned them access to lawmakers like Sens. Edward Kennedy and Patrick Leahy. Both have met with members to discuss the organization's political agenda.
Seeking more visibility in Washington, the group is in the process of opening a headquarters in Falls Church, Va. But for now, day-to-day operations are still run from Lemack's mother's house in Framingham.
On Dec. 20, Kenneth Feinberg, who oversees the victims' fund, announced how the victims' money would be distributed, prompting some outraged responses from members of the e-mail group.
Many of them stand to get little or nothing after insurance and death benefits are subtracted. Some reserve the right to file wrongful-death lawsuits against the airlines and have exchanged lawyers' phone numbers.
The organization's Web site also provides members with links to groups offering emotional support as well as charities.
"When I'm having a bad day, I let people know and I get a bunch of e-mails back," Simpkin says. "It's a place I can go and there's other people out there that can understand just what I'm feeling."
She hopes the relationships she's made through the group will endure after the shock and sadness of Sept. 11 has started to heal.
"It's a very bittersweet experience because I've connected with some amazing people," she says. "Out of this tragedy of losing my sister, I have this family of people that I'll never forget."
—The Associated Press