By V. Dion Haynes and Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, August 3, 2008
Like many who worked at the central mail-processing facility on Brentwood Road in Northeast Washington before October 2001, Dena Briscoe said she finds it difficult to enter the hulking red-brick building.
It was there that anthrax contamination killed two employees.
Briscoe, now full-time president of the American Postal Workers Union local that represents employees there, had opted to be reassigned to another facility when Brentwood reopened in 2003, after a major cleanup. The site was renamed in memory of Joseph Curseen Jr., 47, and Thomas Morris Jr., 55. About 1,000 people work at Brentwood today, Briscoe said. Twice as many worked there before the contamination. After the attacks, some workers sought transfers and others retired early. And there were injured workers unable to return. Even the volume of mail was reduced, after government agencies urged people to use e-mails and faxes instead. The lighter load has prompted officials to seek elimination of the overnight shift.
The building is like a ghost town, Briscoe said.
On Friday, former and current employees of the facility learned that Maryland bioweapons expert Bruce E. Ivins, 62, died in an apparent suicide as a federal grand jury was preparing to indict him in connection with attacks that killed five people and, in the aftermath of Sept. 11, further traumatized the nation for months. Supervisors instructed workers not to talk to the media because of the ongoing investigation, and postal security officers ordered reporters off the premises.
The news, Briscoe said, rekindled anger that management has not explained why it allowed the facility to remain open even though it knew about the contamination and why officials did not apologize to employees for possibly putting them at risk. People are upset that the victims did not receive the emotional and financial support given to those who suffered in other national tragedies, she said.
"We've been fighting for information on why [the postal facility] didn't shut down like Capitol Hill," said Briscoe, who also serves as president of a victims organization, Brentwood Exposed.
Luvenia Hyson, spokeswoman for the Brentwood facility, did not return a phone message left at her home yesterday seeking comment.
"The Labor Department set up a center for workman's compensation claims from 9/11. We never had that," Briscoe said. Some claims from the Brentwood contamination "were never approved or dealt with properly."
In October 2001, anthrax-contaminated letters were mailed to then-Sen. Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), TV network offices in New York and the company that owns the National Enquirer. In addition to the two D.C. postal employees, a New York hospital worker, a Connecticut woman and a Florida photographer died in the attacks.
With the death of a possible suspect, "there are probably more questions now than before," said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, which filed a class-action lawsuit against the postmaster general, alleging that management lied when it assured workers that the facility was safe. The U.S. District Court rejected the workers' request for compensation, saying they could pursue other remedies. The Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
"If this was the guy, why wasn't he in custody?" Fitton asked. "Why did it take so long" to find him? And "why didn't they pick up the guy sooner to prevent him from" committing suicide?
Among the injured is Leroy Richmond, 64, who had worked as a safety captain at the facility. He suffered lung injuries and short-term memory loss caused by anthrax spores. He is unable to play basketball with his son, now 13. He cannot ride his bicycle. He can no longer work.
Richmond said he hears from several current and former workers about once a month. They want to know how he is doing. He said he often thinks about the job, where he spent 34 years -- and his friends, Curseen and Morris, the men who died. Curseen was his prayer partner, Richmond said, and Morris his pinochle partner.
He said a co-worker told him about the deaths while he was in the hospital. "She said: 'I have some sad news. I left the funeral of one of your friends,' " he recalled. Then she handed him Curseen's obituary. Richmond said he cried. "I couldn't breathe. I thought, 'My God, I'm going to be next.' "
Richmond's wife, Susan, who had worked at Brentwood, requested a transfer to another postal facility. "They sent her a letter saying she had to return to the building," he said. "She went into hysteria. She said she could not work there again."
Larry Powell, 59, worked at the Brentwood facility during the contamination. He and other workers were required to take antibiotics in the aftermath. Powell, who since then has worked at four other facilities, might be reassigned to Brentwood.
He said he feels "let down" by managers who did not tell workers about contamination risks. "All you had to do is put the information out there," he said. "Don't let me walk down that road and see what's happening when you already know something bad is down there."
Ray Robinson was among the workers who decided to return to Brentwood, mainly because the Postal Service could not guarantee that he would be able to keep his night shift if he went elsewhere.
The facility is now equipped with a system that is supposed to detect anthrax and other hazards in the mail.
Still, workers are much more aggressive about calling safety issues to management's attention, Robinson said. "They speak out more," he said. "They don't just take management's word."
"Management at least entertains safety issues a lot better than before," said Robinson, 44, an automations clerk. "They do listen to problems instead of saying, 'Go back to work,' like they used to."