Anthrax attacks still resonate with postal workers 10 years later

Joe Davidson
Columnist October 20, 2011

Ten years later, the memories are fresh. The bitterness and anger are gone — almost.

It’s time to commemorate and it’s also time to move on. Those directly affected by the October 2001 anthrax attacks that killed five people, including two postal workers, are doing just that.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

It’s a process. Moving on doesn’t start one day and end the next. Ten years later, that process continues for the families and colleagues of the workers who died.

“I think I’m still going through the grieving process, to tell you the truth,” Mary Morris said.

This weekend marks 10 years since her husband, Thomas, died after being exposed to anthrax at the Brentwood mail processing plant in Northeast Washington.

“At some point in time you feel you can remember them in the good times and go on with your life,” she continued. “I’m not able to go on with my life.”

Don’t get the wrong impression from that last statement. It takes only a few minutes on the phone with Morris to know that this strong, spiritual and candid woman really has moved on as much, perhaps, as anyone could. She is not stuck in grief.

But her husband’s “public death,” as she calls it, makes it more difficult than it might be otherwise to more fully get on with life. People ask questions. Reporters press for answers.

Yet she remains gracious, even uplifting to the curious.

“It just takes you back to that place,” she said of the questions. “I really don’t want to live in that place.”

Morris, however, will revisit “that place” when she speaks at Friday commemoration services at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. There are two services, at 9:30 a.m. and 4 p.m., at the church, at 400 Michigan Ave. NE.

Events like this help the healing process. This one is organized by Brentwood Exposed, a group of former and current postal workers. In addition to Morris, Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe, union officials and others will speak.

“We don’t want this to ever happen to anyone else in this country,” said Dena Briscoe, president of both Brentwood Exposed and the area local of the American Postal Workers Union.

She said she was among those exposed to anthrax. Her chest won’t let her forget.

“If I walk too far too fast my chest starts burning,” she said. “I never had these problems before all this took place.”

Like Morris, Briscoe speaks of relying on her faith to get through a “very traumatic” period.

“Lives were put at risk when they shouldn’t have been. . . . It took a while to trust society again,” she said. “You feel if your employer . . . jeopardized your life like that . . . who could I trust?”

Now, the work, the atmosphere, the emotions “are pretty much back to normal,” Briscoe said. She takes some comfort in measures the U.S. Postal Service has taken to ensure the safety of its workers.

That’s a point Donahoe made in a statement released this week.

“In the decade since this tragedy, the Postal Service decontaminated and renovated affected facilities, deployed state-of-the-art technology to detect and protect against potential threats and implemented educational programs for our employees and the mailing community,” he said. “The anthrax crisis served as a defining moment for the Postal Service and due to the unwavering dedication and commitment of Postal employees across the nation, the mail continued to move.”

But at the time of the crisis, the Postal Service’s decision to continue moving the mail put its workers at risk, according to James Harper. He worked on a two-man machine with Joseph P. Curseen, the other postal employee killed by anthrax.

Harper, now retired, remains upset at what he describes as more favorable treatment provided to congressional employees who also were hit by anthrax .

“With me there’s still hard feelings on that,” he said. “Time has softened the pain, but it’s still there.”

The Brentwood employees were a family, literally, he added. His mother and sister worked there; many other staff members had kin there, too.

But anthrax changed everything.

“That separated us. People were scattered to five different facilities,” he said. “I never went back into the building. I just couldn’t. I never will.”

Follow the Federal Diary on Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

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