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Last Updated

01 Dec 2002

Source: Miami Herald, October 26, 2001.

Town faces anthrax threat with rising apprehension


HAMILTON TOWNSHIP, N.J. -- Business remains brisk at Harry's Army and Navy store, located directly across Route 130 from the Trenton regional postal sorting facility that has become the de facto symbol for anthrax in the Delaware Valley.

The bio-chem suits and gas masks, Osama bin Laden gun range targets and ammo -- lots of ammo -- have been flying off the shelves since Sept. 11. But there's an unspoken moratorium on jokes linking one of the largest gun stores to its largest post office.

"That's been an ongoing thing,'' store manager Ed Slater said of "going postal'' jokes. "But you haven't heard much of it lately. Not with all of this going on.''

The jokes are no longer in vogue -- not while more than 1,100 mail sorters, carriers and bulk-mail distributors are standing in line at a local hospital, waiting for a nasal swab, a prescription for Cipro and some peace of mind.

Joe Brecko, a hulking 56-year-old Trenton native who has been sorting mail at the regional plant since he was 23, was waiting outside Robert Wood Johnson University Medical Center for a nasal swab.

Brecko is seven years shy of an 80 percent pension, but he hasn't been able to return to the line sorting outgoing mail on the midnight shift since last week. He opted for a short, unpaid leave of absence. "I haven't been to work because of the fear,'' Brecko said. "It's the unknown. We just don't know what happened in there or how bad it really is. But people are getting sick.''

Some of the most concrete leads in the growing nationwide anthrax investigation lead back to the postal facility located in a sprawling, 40-square-mile stretch of former apple orchards and farms that is now suburban home to more than 86,000 people, many of them state government workers, cops, firefighters and prison guards. With more than 900 employees, the postal facility is one of the town's largest employers.

Three letters tainted with anthrax spores passed through the Hamilton plant. They were addressed to NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and the editorial page editor of the New York Post. And five Trenton-area postal workers -- four of whom work at the Hamilton plant -- are being treated for likely anthrax contamination. The latest, a Hamilton mail sorter, was diagnosed as a suspected case of inhalation anthrax on Thursday.

An unidentified 52-year-old female mail sorter is in serious but stable condition with the deadlier, inhalation version of anthrax, the same disease that killed tabloid photo editor Robert Stevens of Palm Beach County earlier this month and two postal workers outside Washington, D.C.

Health officials say Daniel Patrick O'Donnell of Levittown, Pa., a magazine sorter at the Hamilton facility, has cutaneous anthrax, and they strongly suspect that maintenance mechanic Richard Morgano has it as well. Officials say letter carrier Teresa Heller also has skin anthrax, raising the possibility that she picked it up on her route 10 miles from the sorting hub. All three are recovering with antibiotics.

State and federal officials are considering testing the air at the Hamilton center after finding anthrax spores on 33 of the 82 surfaces tested there over the past three days. Officials worry that the rollers and air blowers may have dispersed the microscopic spores into the air.

FBI agents and postal inspectors blanketed Heller's route along Lower Ferry Road last week. But postal inspectors said Thursday they now believe Heller contracted the disease from a contaminated tray or box that came through the Hamilton sorting facility and not from her route.

The investigation has also expanded into Monmouth County, where some mail usually processed at an Eatontown facility was diverted to Hamilton on Oct. 9, the day the Daschle letter was postmarked. As many as nine other Trenton area post offices may be tested for the presence of spores.

At the same time, investigators into the terrorist attacks have also been passing through Trenton, running down leads on Mohammad Aslam Pervez, who was indicted last week on charges he lied to the FBI about financial transactions.

Pervez, who lived in Trenton in the mid 1990s and worked at a newsstand at the train station, is a former Jersey City roommate of Ayub Ali Khan and Mohammed Jaweed Azmath, who were pulled off an Amtrak train in Texas on Sept. 12. They had a large sum of cash, hair dye and box-cutter knives like those believed to have been used in the Sept. 11 hijackings. Pervez is being held in New York without bail.

At Wynnewood Manor, residents would rather be left alone to their quiet, tree-lined neighborhood of Cape Cod homes. Approximately 150 FBI agents and postal inspectors canvassed the area last Friday shortly after discovering that Heller had tested positive for cutaneous anthrax.

Brecko, the 33-year postal service veteran, isn't so sure the terrorist threat has come and gone.

"They've already done it once,'' Brecko said. "If they done it now, what's to say that they can't do it all again? What happens when we come back to work and start to deal with [the Christmas rush] in December? What then . . .''