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Last Updated

22 Oct 2002

Source:  Washington Post, October 22, 2002.

Cast Adrift by Anthrax

One Year After Deaths, Postal Workers Pray and Call for Action

By Manny Fernandez, Washington Post Staff Writer

A year after last fall's anthrax crisis claimed the first of two Washington postal workers, about 100 employees of the quarantined Brentwood mail center and their supporters gathered yesterday for a remembrance marked with quiet prayers and impassioned speeches that underscored the workers' continuing sense of unease, frustration and sorrow.

"We are still on the front lines," Brentwood clerk Dena Briscoe told the audience yesterday morning at a sanctuary inside the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Northeast Washington. "We have concerns about our health, our safety and our future."

Briscoe is president of Brentwood Exposed, a support group of former and current Brentwood workers that sponsored yesterday's service in memory of Thomas L. Morris Jr. (case 15) and Joseph P. Curseen (case 16).

The two Brentwood employees died of inhalation anthrax last October after two letters containing anthrax spores passed through the facility on their way to Capitol Hill offices. The anthrax attacks that claimed their lives spread fear throughout the region and the nation. About 2,000 Brentwood workers were urged to take preventive antibiotics, the sprawling facility was shut and Brentwood workers were reassigned.

Since then, the plant -- recently renamed in honor of Curseen and Morris -- has remained closed as officials conduct a series of tests. An additional test is scheduled this week, and U.S. Postal Service spokeswoman Deborah Yackley said a full fumigation is likely to begin within weeks, though no date has been set.

Morris, 55, of Suitland died one year ago yesterday at Greater Southeast Community Hospital. Curseen, 47, of Clinton died one year ago today at Southern Maryland Hospital Center in Clinton. Another anniversary observance honoring Curseen and Morris took place last night at the basilica. A memorial service sponsored by the Postal Service is scheduled for 10 a.m. today at Greater Mount Calvary Holy Church, 610 Rhode Island Ave. NE, not far from the plant.

Last year, many Brentwood workers complained that they did not get the same level of concern or treatment that workers on Capitol Hill did. Yesterday, several speakers and attendees at the morning ceremony echoed that sentiment.

A host of concerns for many Washington area mail handlers remains, they said, including the lack of an arrest in the case and questions about whether proper precautions against another attack have been put in place. Others expressed concern about health troubles some still experience and the number of Brentwood employees who have died since last fall, although no others have been traced to anthrax, authorities have said.

"The post office has aggressively moved on," said James Harper, 41, a Brentwood worker and friend of Curseen, following the three-hour service. "They are more or less back to normal. We're still sick. We're still suffering emotionally and physically from this... . We're still vulnerable to an attack."

Counseling sessions were offered yesterday after the service of music, readings and discussions of Scripture and speeches by Postal Service managers and union officials. Letters of condolence and support from Morris's widow, Mary, and Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) were read. Daschle's office in the Hart Senate Office Building was where the first anthrax-laced letter in the area was opened.

Some of the loudest applause came during remarks by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.). Mikulski said that Curseen and Morris died "as heroes in the war on terrorism" and the nation owed the postal worker community a greater display of gratitude. "Thank you for the courage, the fortitude, the bravery for just showing up every day," she told the workers.

She said the government needs to do more to track postal workers' health since the anthrax attacks, and she is seeking legislation for such a study.

Jerry Lane, a Postal Service manager for the Washington region, said after the service that the Postal Service has responded to the crisis as best it could, focusing on worker safety, and is testing technology that would detect anthrax in the mail. "A year later, we're a lot more prepared to respond," Lane said.