Feds in New York slowly recover from attacks

Federal employees in New York City are slowly recovering their sense of security on the job after losing their offices and, in some cases, their co-workers, on Sept. 11.

It's been 140 days since the terrorist attacks in New York City, but Tony Farthing still doesn't know what the mood in his office will be when he arrives at work each morning. Farthing is director of the Census Bureau's New York Region, whose offices are on the 37th floor of 26 Federal Plaza, one of four buildings that houses more than 25,000 federal employees in lower Manhattan. "I walk into the office some days and folks are all teary. You're moving on, then you get a reminder and boom!," Farthing said about how his office is coping since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Federal Plaza is just a few blocks away from what is now ground zero--the site where the World Trade Center's twin towers stood before two hijacked planes crashed into them on Sept. 11. Two of Farthing's employees, Marion Britton and Waleska Martinez, were killed when United Airlines Flight 93 crashed in Pennsylvania, the last of four terrorist attacks that day. Since then, the New York Census staff has struggled to absorb that loss while managing the stress of returning to a building some employees fear is a prime terrorist target. Two federal buildings in Manhattan were destroyed or rendered inaccessible by the attacks, causing federal managers to scatter their employees among other nearby agency offices. Census Bureau employees worked out of another regional facility for days before returning to their Manhattan offices, but their homecoming effort was riddled with problems, according to Farthing. Following the attacks, Census moved all of its computers to its regional offices so employees could continue to work. But on the day the computers were moved back to Federal Plaza, the Census Bureau offices had an anthrax scare. "HAZMAT came in and they closed my office for three weeks. My staff had to move back to the regional office," Farthing recalled. "For three weeks I couldn't give my employees any kind of idea about whether they had been exposed [to the anthrax virus] and the city wasn't doing anthrax testing of people unless you were able to confirm through the Centers for Disease Control that you were exposed." The anthrax threat increased an already heightened level of panic among Farthing's employees. A Census Bureau employee finally verified that the sample taken from the offices did not contain anthrax spores and the move back to Federal Plaza resumed. However, the building was soon riddled with a series of evacuations caused by false alarms. Farthing said he wondered when the chaos would end. "A day without an incident, a day without the speaker coming on, was a good day for us," he said, adding that it was almost Thanksgiving before a semblance of normalcy returned to the Census Bureau offices. In addition to the Census Bureau, the World Trade Center complex was home to the Customs Service, which shifted operations to the agency's Newark, N.J., and John F. Kennedy Airport offices following the attacks. It took a week for Customs headquarters and GSA to secure new offices at One Penn Plaza, but the new location accommodates little more than one-quarter of the 800-member agency staff. Some agency units have become permanent residents of the Newark and Kennedy airport offices. Customs learned a hard lesson from the attacks. Agency employees are still trying to recreate records that were obliterated when their old building collapsed. "Some items were backed up on our headquarters computers, but we have had to rebuild most of them almost from scratch," said John Martuge, field office director of the New York Customs Management Center. "It's been difficult. We still have not reconstructed all of our files and some of those files are lost forever." Since Sept. 11, Customs has changed its focus from catching drug smugglers at the nation's borders to homeland security. Martuge, a 39-year Customs veteran, said his employees easily made the adjustment. "We were there, we saw the effects and when the focus of the agency changed, we were ready to make that adjustment real quick, not that it doesn't mean much to people in other places of the country, but we understood the reason for it," he said, adding that this new focus may have helped some of his employees cope with the attacks. Both Farthing and Martuge marveled at the resilience of their employees, who continued working, meeting deadlines and providing support to their co-workers after the attacks. "Despite all the tragedies, we have these surveys that have to get done and we have to keep working," Farthing said. "It was just very, very tough to do that and try to stay focused on what we had to do. I'm not only grateful, but I am proud of my office and staff here, these folks have such a work ethic that they weren't going to let things fall apart." Though the months have reduced the stress in these offices, both Farthing and Martuge admit that the psychological trauma remains. Some Customs employees weren't able to return to work until earlier this month. One Census Bureau employee has yet to return to 26 Federal Plaza. "It's almost like a time bomb," Martuge said. "You never know when it's going to hit, a sudden loud noise or a plane flying low overhead can work some people up, but essentially we're back on track."