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Last Updated

14 Dec 2002

Source: Los Angeles Times, June 23, 2002.


Scars From Anthrax Attacks Are Fading but Are Not Fully Healed


HAMILTON TOWNSHIP, N.J. -- A skateboard park just opened. Little League and the soccer season are in full bloom. And roads are crowded on weekends with beach-goers heading for the Jersey shore.

For many residents here, the rituals of summer have softened memories of last fall's anthrax attacks, when this quiet community gained national recognition as an epicenter of bacterial terrorism.

But just a glimpse of the Hamilton Mail Processing Center provides an instant reminder. Sheets of thick black plastic still cover every door, window and opening of the sprawling, low-rise brown brick building where anthrax-laced letters felled three workers (see figure). "Sure you have to think about it when you ride by," said Jim Stevens, 55, a maintenance man in the nearby township of East Windsor, N.J. "See the windows, you see what's going on."

At least four tainted letters passed through the Hamilton Township building in September and October. More than eight months later, the building remains closed; its more than 1,000 workers have been reassigned to other area facilities. Many residents still pick up their mail from a trailer parked out front.

The U.S. Postal Service plans to decontaminate the building after it attempts to remove anthrax spores from the Brentwood postal facility in Washington. The date when work will start in New Jersey is uncertain.

Some wonder whether it will ever happen.

"The post office is a biological monument," said Dr. Robert Silverbrook, a local internist whose practice includes 150 postal workers.

Among the many postal workers here who swallowed powerful antibiotics for three months, anxieties linger. Some employees question how safe the Hamilton building will be if it reopens. And most are frustrated by an hourlong commute each way to temporary assignments at other mail sorting facilities.

"The clerks are being told they are not sure if they are going to do processing here," said Richard Zerrenner, a letter carrier and secretary of Branch 380 of the National Assn. of Letter Carriers. He and his wife worked in the building. "We don't know what's going on."

But for others in the Hamilton community of 87,000, the sense of impending danger has receded.

Cliff Mellan, 78, who has lived in the same house for 50 years and worked in advertising until he retired, said most residents have moved on with their lives.

"I talk with people every morning over coffee," he said. "There hasn't been any more discussion about the anthrax."

Richard McClellan, chief of staff for Mayor Richard D. Gilmore, agrees.

"People are interested in their own lives," McClellan said. "We learned that the world is a far smaller place than we thought and things far away can affect us locally.

"Even though Hamilton is the eighth-biggest municipality in the state, we really are a small town ... with small-town values and a small-town way of life."

City officials like to boast that motorists here can travel to New York, about 50 miles away, without stopping at a traffic light (see map). The community is also within easy reach of Philadelphia and Trenton, New Jersey's capital.

In recent years, a steady stream of families from New York and northern New Jersey searching for less crowded schools, a less stressful life and lower crime rates have moved here.

The discovery of anthrax shook that sense of security, especially after two postal workers contracted inhalation anthrax (cases 11 and 13) and a third came down with the cutaneous form of the disease (case 12). All survived.

At Harry's Army & Navy Store directly across a busy highway from the contaminated building, panic was acute.

"It was unbelievable," said Mark Horwitz, the store's purchasing agent, remembering the rush for gas masks. "We had back orders in the hundreds."

"We had people cry in the store," said Marcia Shoesmith, pausing between ringing up sales at a cash register. "They wanted gas masks for the dogs and everything.... Money was not an option. They were going to protect the family."

But the clamor for gas masks has ended.

Dr. Silverbrook's practice, too, has grown calmer since the days when he was besieged by patients fearful that they were exposed.

But he still is treating postal workers suffering from symptoms of anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

"The burden of biological warfare passed through their hands," the physician said. "Handling every piece of mail could end your life. It was like being a bomb specialist."

"I am seeing people who are fearful of other biological weapons," Silverbrook added. "... I tell them, hopefully, there will not be another biological attack. The best thing to do is, they should be living their life."