Mail handlers Demand Help & Answers

By Laura Parker and Haya El Nasser, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — When television pictures showed more than 1,400 congressional aides lining up to be tested for exposure to anthrax last week, William Palmer was working a mail-sorting machine, as usual, at this city's sprawling Brentwood mail-processing center. At the time, doctors at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta were saying that they saw no need to test postal workers, even though the anthrax-laced letter sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle had passed through the building where Palmer, 61, and more than 2,000 other postal employees work. Then two of Palmer's co-workers died suddenly, one Sunday and one Monday, each within hours of being hospitalized with flu-like symptoms and respiratory problems. Two others are infected with inhalation anthrax, the most deadly form of the disease. Washington health officials are monitoring at least nine others who have symptoms indicating possible anthrax infection. All are being treated with antibiotics.

"Yeah, now they're giving us gloves and masks," Palmer says. "We should've been the first ones tested."

On Monday, as thousands of workers at Brentwood and other mail-sorting facilities here went to a local hospital for testing, it was clear that postal workers could become the primary victims of the bioterrorism attacks that first struck U.S. media and political institutions.

At Brentwood, apprehension and anxiety gave way to anger at a government many felt had betrayed them. If they had been tested at the same time as lawmakers and their aides on Capitol Hill, some wondered, would their dead colleagues still be alive? Are they at greater risk now, because of the delay in testing?

Government officials scrambling to get a handle on the anthrax outbreak rejected suggestions that they did not move quickly enough to test postal workers.

Former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge, head of the new Homeland Security Office, said officials needed time to trace the movements of the Daschle letter backward from Capitol Hill to a mail facility operated by the U.S. Capitol Police that showed signs of anthrax contamination only after several tests were conducted.

After being mailed in New Jersey, the tainted letter had passed through the Brentwood facility before going to the police center, which sorts mail headed to U.S. lawmakers.

Officials "followed the chain" and "moved as quickly as they could," Postmaster General John Potter said. "This is not a situation where America should be pointing fingers at anyone else other than the terrorists. We are dealing with new experiences. We're all dealing with new situations."

Donna Garland, a spokeswoman for the CDC, added that "we're obviously concerned when there are deaths that things could have been done differently. We've done the best we could with the information that we knew at the time."

But in the new age of bioterrorism, officials are discovering that what they once thought unimaginable is now reality. Until this month, there had not been a death from inhalation anthrax in this country in 25 years, and just 18 deaths overall in the last century.

Officials acknowledge they are still learning how to respond to such attacks.

Earlier this month, officials were guarded about diagnoses. On Monday, in announcing the two deaths, they said simply that they assume anthrax was the cause.

Autopsies are being conducted on both victims, but Surgeon General David Satcher says inhalation anthrax is "highly probable."

"This is some serious stuff," says Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson.

The anthrax attacks have forced law enforcement and public health officials in New Jersey, New York, Florida and Washington to spend millions of dollars investigating anthrax, prompted an unprecedented shutdown of the U.S. Capitol last week, and now have raised new fears among thousands of postal workers about their vulnerability.

"Postal employees are uncertain and afraid for their health and that of their families," says William Burrus, executive vice president of the American Postal Workers Union.

Although authorities have not yet linked the anthrax attacks to the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, there are significant parallels. Just as the suicide hijackers turned ordinary commercial jets into deadly bombs, the culprits behind the anthrax attacks have turned the daily mail into a deadly weapon.

Apparently, it's not hard to do.

The millions of letters and packages that travel through this city's main mail-processing center are dumped, shuffled, tossed and shaken. Much of the mail is fed through sorting machines that generate small winds, almost imperceptible breezes that government officials never gave a second thought. Until now.

Now workers here want to know which of these acts involving the mail could create enough billowing effect to keep anthrax spores aloft long enough to be inhaled into the lungs. "As soon as they found out about it, they should have tested us then," says Bianca Halsey, 29, who handles mail opened by accident or separated from a stack. "But they didn't think we could get it."

The testing of postal workers here began Sunday afternoon, about 5 hours before Thomas Morris, a mail sorter at Brentwood, died at a D.C. hospital. Nasal swabs are being taken of all workers at Brentwood and about 150 others at an air-mail facility near Baltimore-Washington International Airport. They were given a 10-day supply of the antibiotic Cipro. Tonight, the chief medical examiner for the District of Columbia identified one of the postal workers as Thomas L. Morris Jr. A friend and neighbor identified the other as Joseph Curseen, 47, of Clinton, Md.

The initial test results were far more disturbing than first feared because they revealed that employees throughout the 700,00-square-foot Brentwood facility, which handles all mail to Washington, might have been exposed.

"We had to fight to get the gloves at work," says Phyllis West, 57, a Brentwood worker. She got gloves on Thursday.

The first confirmation of a postal worker having inhalation anthrax came Sunday morning. Leroy Richmond, 57, works in the express-mail section at Brentwood and shuttled between there and the air-mail center near BWI.

On Monday, the second inhalation case was confirmed in a Brentwood loading dock supervisor. His name has not been released. Like Richmond, he is in serious condition at a hospital in suburban Virginia.

As has become maddeningly usual in these bioterrorist attacks, there are more questions than answers: How did the anthrax come into contact with, and then infect, so many workers in so many places around the building? Did a letter or package containing the deadly spores break open? Did an envelope tear? Did someone plant anthrax in the building itself, where authorities have yet to detect it?

"A lot of times, envelopes are ripped in the machines. It could've gotten out that way," says John Ford, a retired postal worker and now a representative with the postal workers union.

Ford, 66, used to work in the same express-mail section as Richmond. Ford says that blowers used to clean mail-processing machines could easily spread airborne anthrax spores. "It just blows it out all over the place," he says.

As a precaution, the machines are being vacuumed.

Even the postal workers who operate the sorting equipment feel vulnerable. "Somebody's got to dump (the mail) on there," says Carlos Dickson, 60, a 25-year postal worker at Brentwood.

In New Jersey, where two postal workers are being treated for skin anthrax, the less-deadly form of the disease, the mood among mail carriers is defiant.

New Jersey remains the most promising avenue for the investigation. FBI agents continued a door-to-door canvas of all 560 stops on the route of a Trenton mail carrier being treated for skin anthrax.

Three anthrax-laden letters, to Daschle, the New York Post and NBC television anchor Tom Brokaw, were postmarked in Trenton, authorities say. The Daschle letter was also postmarked in Trenton, although authorities have not yet homed in on where it was mailed.

Martin D'Autrechy, 45, of Burlington, N.J., vowed to carry on. "If we allow those individuals to scare us, we might as well fold up."

Contributing: Toni Locy, Traci Watson, Mimi Hall, Dennis Cauchon and Stephanie Armour.