Ten years ago Saturday,the country’s deadly outbreak of bioterrorism had shuttered Washington’s main mail-sorting center in Northeast Washington. Its 2,000 workers were scattered in chaos and fear. And two men in its extended family were dead from inhaling anthrax-laced letters.
On Friday, Joseph P. Curseen Jr. and Thomas L. Morris Jr. were remembered by postal workers and officials with prayer vigils and memorials. Their deaths are a reminder of the slow horror and mystery of the anthrax attacks as they unfolded from the elite world of Capitol Hill to the Brentwood facility, where workers had been assured by health officials that they were safe.
“This was a family-run business,” James Harper recalled as the morning vigil outside the building broke up just after sunrise. He worked side by side with Curseen on the night shift loading letters into the bar code machine for government mail.
“We got hit with a devastating terrorist attack, and it broke up the whole family.”
About 70 workers had gathered with candles before the morning shift, as mail trucks rumbled by. Several read from scripture to let go of their anger and move their lives forward. There were solemn moments and laughs, and fresh memories of the anger postal employees felt at not being warned earlier that they could be vulnerable to anthrax.
After Curseen and Morris died within 24 hours of each other in late October, Brentwood employees were scattered to the region’s other sorting centers. Harper knew that he could never return, so he drove 50 miles a day from his home in Accokeek, Md., to Gaithersburg until he retired from the Postal Service in 2006.
The letter-borne anthrax terrorism killed five people and sickened 17 more, including several postal workers in New Jersey. In 2008, federal prosecutors declared a scientist named Bruce Ivins, who worked at the government’s biodefense labs at Fort Detrick, Md., as the culprit. Ivins had killed himself days before. The FBI closed its investigation last year. Some have questioned whether Ivans was guilty.
Curseen, 47, of Clinton and Morris, 53, a distribution clerk from Suitland, were the second and third Americans to die, after Robert Stevens, a photo editor at the Sun tabloid in Florida, died in early October. (A New York hospital worker and a Connecticut woman died later.) Two other Brentwood workers got sick and survived. An anonymous letter to the Capitol Hill office of then-Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D) had been routed through Brentwood. Only then did health and postal officials make the connection that the center was a hot spot of anthrax spores and begin testing workers and distributing antibiotics.
“There’s no question it took too long to close Brentwood,” said June Brown, a mail processor who attended the vigil; the postal facility is down from 2,000 employees to 1,000 now. Curseen, she recalled, had a sweet tooth and left candy on the sorting machine for his co-workers.
At a formal memorial at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception later Friday, postal employees and officials said the attacks were a defining moment for the mail service: The unthinkable had happened.
Postmaster Patrick R. Donahoe called mail workers the “quiet heroes of the entire nation” during the anthrax scare and recalled their “bravery, commitment and dedication” as they continued to deliver mail. He said training and technology to detect potential threats to government letters have made the mail safer.
Morris’s widow, Mary Morris, came from Illinois, where she relocated in 2003 to live near her daughter.
“Each one of us, our lives have been changed forever,” she said. As she drove to Washington to speak at the service, “the emotions come back,” she said. “The hurt comes back. The pain comes back.”
“It’s not as strong as it was. I’m personally moving forward. I have not arrived there yet,” Morris said.
On a table outside the service, the history of the attacks was archived for the public in a three-ring binder assembled by Brentwood Exposed, an advocacy group of postal workers that formed during the crisis. There were news clips and photographs, letters from Congress and yellowing programs from Curseen’s and Morris’s memorial services.
Inside, their co-workers brought the men alive. Ray Robinson, a union leader, recalled how Morris would bring him grievances that showed his concern for everyone, not just himself. “He was less concerned about his job as he was about the overall welfare of the employees,” Robinson said.
Curseen was a second-generation postal worker and president of his homeowners association in Clinton, where at the time of his death he was fighting for speed bumps after an accident in the area. He would walk the halls of Brentwood in his blue postal shorts, a Bible under his arm.
At the end of every shift, Harper recalled, Curseen would shake Harper’s hand, and say, “Thanks for working with me.’’