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Shutdown ruins Arch visit for tourists, sends thousands of federal workers home

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UPDATED at 1:15 p.m. with more detail from federal employees and people seeking services.  

ST. LOUIS • Nell Fuentes didn't want to be late today. He had urged his wife to hurry as she braided her hair in their hotel room. Weeks ago they had purchased tickets for a 9 a.m trip to the top of the Gateway Arch. It was time to go.

Now, at the stroke of 9, as the bells at nearby Christ Church Cathedral rang out in the morning fog, the Fuentes of Mason City, Iowa, hustled up to the Arch's south entrance. They hoped they weren't too late. And that's where they ran into a truck driver and his wife from Pennsylvania.

"It's closed," the truck driver said. "You won't be getting in."

"No?" replied Fuentes, clutching his camera and tripod. "Not today?"

"Not anytime soon."

Nell and his wife Donna Fuentes listened as the truck driver, who also had plans to visit the Arch today, explained what had happened in Washington overnight and the rippling effect across the country. The Arch was supposed to open at 9 a.m. Instead, iron bars blocked the entrance, along with a sign reading, "Because of the federal government shutdown, this National Park Service facility is closed."

That when's a couple from Auckland, New Zealand, walked up.

"What a shame," Rene Goodwin said.

"This was something we really wanted to do," Arron Goodwin added.

They were on the final stop of a three-week American odyssey.

"What's the story of the shutdown?" Renee Goodwin asked her husband.

He proceeded to give her a rundown of the dispute between Democrats and Republicans. "But I didn't think they'd shut a major tourist attraction like this," he said.

More tourists arrived. A few from Carbondale, Ill. A couple and their son from Preston, England. They had visited the Arch on Monday, but had come back hoping to buy souvenirs. They heard about the shutdown, but figured at least the gift shop would still be open.

"All I wanted to do was shop," Kath Wilcox said.

A pool of disappointed tourists collected under the Arch. 

But Nell Fuentes was not going to let the political turmoil spoil the visit.

He set up his camera and tripod, pushed the timer, and posed with his wife, the Arch in the background. 


About 75 National Parks employees in St. Louis were among thousands of federal workers from around the region feeling the pinch Tuesday.

They knew a shutdown was possible and had been planning for it for days.

Still, many of them stayed up late to watch the countdown, with hopes something would budge.

"You always expect things to break at the last minute," said Rotimi Solanke, 45, a lawyer for the National Labor Relations Board. "And it didn't." 

Solanke and scores of others trickled out of the Robert A. Young Federal Building in downtown St. Louis today after being notified that they were on furlough for an undetermined time. 

They carried a mixture of emotions. One U.S. Army Corps of Engineers employee who oversees several contracts was blunt. He said it "sucks." He has a family and debts.

Another employee said she'd already been furloughed six days over the summer. Now, she said, her bill collectors don't want to hear more excuses. She said her stomach was knotted up and she sought counseling. 

An employee for the Department of Labor provided a more positive view. She called her furlough "an extended vacation."

Some workers expected broad implications from the shutdown. An IRS employee said "thousands" of workers were going home and wouldn't be able to handle taxpayer issues. 

Katie Serrano, 32, of Edwardsville, an investigator for the Department of Labor, has cases that would likely need to be rescheduled. A few blocks away, at the Thomas F. Eagleton U.S. Courthouse, government lawyers in several civil cases filed motions asking for delays in hearing dates. The cases involved commodities trading, civil rights and an environmental issue.

"A couple of days would be okay, but beyond that it becomes problematic," Serrano said. 

Roosevelt Robinson, 61, a welder, was already realizing the effects of the shutdown today.

He came to Robert A. Young building expecting to file retirement paperwork at the U.S. Railroad Retirement Board.

"They're closed," he said. "That's ridiculous. I can't even sign up. I can't do nothing. I took off work to do this."

Bill Rushing, 57, a courier trying to deliver a package to Housing and Urban Development offices was in a similar situation.  

"They didn't even know which offices were closed," he said of going through security at the tall brick building. "They just said go check."

HUD was closed. So Rushing planned on returning the package to the sender. He suspected it was a bid for services. 


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