Anthrax Mystery and Misery Linger for Postal Workers

By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The envelope containing the anthrax was postmarked Oct. 9, 2001, and arrived at the Brentwood postal facility in Northeast Washington a few days later. The return address read, "4th Grade, Greendale School, Franklin Park, NJ 08852." But the letter had not been mailed by kids. And you could be forgiven for no longer wondering who had mailed it.

Forgiving those who'd forgotten about them -- that's what some postal workers have been trying to do for five years, ever since two of their own, Thomas L. Morris Jr., 55, and Joseph P. Curseen Jr., 47, died Oct. 21 and Oct. 22, 2001, respectively, after inhaling anthrax from that envelope. They want to forgive our forgetting how badly they had been treated. Forgive our not caring that the killer remains at large. Forgive our lack of concern that it could happen again.

They need to forgive lest bitterness and resentment corrode their souls.

"Like soldiers, we continue to work on the front line, sometimes feeling unarmed, in hopes that our health and safety needs are met, and that the culprits are apprehended," Dena Briscoe, president of a postal worker support group called Brentwood Exposed, told a gathering of postal employees at a memorial service last week. "We are not offered an apology from our government leaders for their hesitant reactions during the anthrax attacks, putting the mail first and leaving many still wounded."

The contaminated letter had been addressed to then-Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.). The anthrax was discovered after it was opened by one of his staff members Oct. 15. Almost immediately, more than 3,000 Capitol Hill employees were methodically tested for anthrax exposure. But at the Brentwood facility, which sorts mail for the House and Senate, it took days before any of the more than 1,000 postal employees were tested -- and then only after one of them had become ill, from anthrax poisoning.

Making matters worse was the obvious racial disparity: the Capitol Hill employees were predominantly white; the postal workers, predominantly black. Moreover, health officials did not go to the postal workers as they did to those on Capitol Hill; instead, the postal workers were directed to government offices miles away, where they had to line up and wait to get a nasal cavity swab. Curseen and Morris never made it.

The memorial service was held at Israel Baptist Church, not far from the Brentwood postal facility, which has been renamed for Curseen and Morris.

Postal worker Robert Finney sang a stirring rendition of the Lord's Prayer ("And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us"). Sylvia Berry, a former postal worker who is now a minister in North Carolina, followed up with a message of redemption through forgiving.

"It's easy to have bitterness in your heart when you believe life has been unfair," Berry said. "Some find it difficult to let go. Some never forgive. But now is a time for healing. We must learn to forgive and to love one another."

The challenge of forgiveness was highlighted by a letter from Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) that was read to the gathering. "I can't believe that we still don't know who is behind these attacks," she wrote. "It is unacceptable that we still have no leads."

But recent expressions of concern, regret and solidarity from Mikulski and others might have advanced the process.

Rep. Albert R. Wynn (D-Md.) told the gathered postal workers: "You have our condolences, which may sound like empty words, given all that has happened. The government has failed you. To this day, we bear a measure of guilt."

And in an op-ed column for The Washington Post last week, Daschle, now a lawyer in private practice, wrote: "Five years later, the alarm I and many others experienced on that dark day has been replaced by a deep discouragement and dismay. The investigation trail has gone cold. Physical evidence that might have been gathered in the first days and weeks after the attacks is long gone. While the FBI has made gains in its scientific capabilities and understanding of anthrax, its slowness to move and its lack of direction in the early stages of the investigation led to missed opportunities."

At the memorial service, Joseph Persichini Jr., acting assistant director of the FBI's Washington field office, told the postal workers that law enforcement agents had worked extremely hard, round-the-clock, and that the failure to solve the crime had caused much grief and frustration.

"We are federal employees, with families, just like you," he said. "We want to do our jobs and do them well."

His humility seemed to soften the crowd. "The FBI now has a human face," Briscoe said.

But the wounds inflicted five years ago are still raw. And it probably doesn't help the healing that some postal workers still feel terribly vulnerable to attack.

E-mail:milloyc@washpost.com


© 2006 The Washington Post Company