Shaken workers return to postal plant

Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, January 9, 2011

Postal workers returned to their jobs Saturday at a District processing facility where a package ignited the day before, resurrecting uneasy memories of the 2001 anthrax mail scare that killed two of their colleagues and changed the way Washington handles mail.

At the V Street annex in Northeast, where the package emitted popping noises and smoke before erupting in a brief flash of flames Friday, employees heading home during a shift change expressed concern that they had not been evacuated swiftly enough. The incident unscored a sense of siege, coming a day after two similar parcels containing low-grade incendiary devices flared up and singed the fingers of Maryland employees handling mail at state government buildings.

Dena Briscoe, president of American Postal Workers Local 140, met with about 40 employees of the V Street annex Saturday morning to discuss the latest string of incidents. She described the workers as somber, shaken and anxious.

"It brings back feelings from the anthrax happening," she said, referring to the fretful weeks in late 2001 when postal workers found anthrax spores in the mail processing facility in Brentwood. Thomas L. Morris Jr. and Joseph P. Curseen died after the exposure. Today, their names are on the building. Their deaths sparked a mistrust of management by employees who thought their welfare was an afterthought.

James Pickett Jr. is not convinced that management learned anything.

A mail processing clerk at the facility, he said he was standing a few feet from the package - addressed to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano - when it ignited after a worker tossed it into a bin.

"An employee yelled out a package had exploded," said Pickett, a 33-year veteran of the Postal Service. "It was kind of scary."

Pickett said he immediately left and urged others to join him. But it took 45 minutes to get everyone outside, he said. "I think that's unacceptable," Pickett said.

Don Redmond, a 40-year-old mail processing clerk from District Heights, didn't work Friday, but he said the incident transported him back to 2001 when he was assigned to the Brentwood facility. He said that his co-workers seemed "on edge" during the Saturday morning meeting with union officials. "Everybody was still trying to get over the initial shock," he said.

'A prime target'

Law enforcement authorities revealed few new details Saturday, other than to say that two of the incidents are definitely connected.

"We're fairly confident all three incidents are related," said Rich Wolf, a spokesman for the FBI field office in Baltimore, where its Joint Terrorist Task Force is leading an investigation encompassing federal and state law enforcement agencies.

The Maryland parcels were addressed to Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) and to state Transportation Secretary Beverley K. Swaim-Staley. Each contained an identical, coarse message: "Report Suspicious Activity! Total [expletive]! You Have Created A Self Fulfilling Prophecy. -X-"

Authorities have not said whether the package in the District had a message.

Many customers also expressed unease at what usually is an uneventful chore.

Danger coming through the mail slot is "a realistic part of living in D.C.," Doug Stroock, 35, a consultant from Northwest, said as he helped a friend tote packages from the National Capital post office. "We are a prime target."

After last week's security threat, Stroock said his employer held an informal meeting about mail safety, focusing on "being safe, keeping an eye out for unusual" things.

During the anthrax scare in 2001, overburdened hazmat units scurried across the region answering dozens of emergency calls from government buildings, embassies, offices and residences where a letter aroused suspicions.

Since then, all mail to government buildings is screened, and many private businesses set aside well-ventilated rooms for mail to be opened.

Few random targets

Postal officials distributed a memo late Thursday reminding workers to be on the lookout for, among other things, lopsided, bulky or rigid packages containing oil stains, discolorations or crystals on the wrapping.

Postal Service spokeswoman Sue Brennan said that looking for suspicious mail and packages "is part of every employee's training and it's reenforced on a regular basis - this was the case even before anthrax. . . . The goal has always been to keep employees safe, to keep customers safe and to keep the U.S. mail safe."

Authorities described incidents involving dangerous devices sent through the mail as rare. Only 13 cases were recorded between 2004 and 2009, according to Frank Schissler, spokesman for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service's Washington division.

"These types of incidents are usually done by a sender who has a grievance against a specific individual, or making a political statement," he said in an interview, noting that public officials or jilted lovers are the most frequent targets. "It's rare that random people are targeted; it almost never happens."

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