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After Anthrax
Filled with fear and distrust, yet a sense of pride, Postal Service employees prepare for an anxious homecoming.

N

ot again, Duane Buchanan thought as he hung up the telephone.

It was 5:30 p.m., Tuesday, Jan. 14. Buchanan, a postal manager, had been home only a few minutes, barely enough time to take off his coat, when his boss called and told him to get back to Washington's V Street mail-processing center. Anthrax had been discovered again-this time in the mail room of a federal office building.

Buchanan wasn't scared. Perhaps it was his four years in the Marine Corps, but whatever the reason, he was determined not to be bullied by an invisible enemy.

Still, he couldn't help thinking, "Not again." And he knew that the 100-plus employees he manages were thinking the same thing, if not worse. After all, they were the same employees who had worked at the Brentwood Mail Processing and Distribution Center, the site of deadly anthrax attacks less than two years ago. Many still mourned two colleagues who died after being exposed. And they wondered about 12 other co-workers from Brentwood who had died in the past year. No one knows for sure whether anthrax contributed to those deaths, but the workers have their suspicions.

Now working at a makeshift processing center on V Street in Northeast Washington, less than two miles from the Brentwood facility, employees and managers found themselves again thinking about the danger posed by one little envelope. On Jan. 14, the Federal Reserve Board announced that one of its mail rooms had tested positive for anthrax. All mail heading to the Fed-or any other government agency in Washington-comes through the V Street facility.

While Buchanan, manager of distribution operations at V Street, huddled with his bosses, rumors spread among the employees. They knew something was up, but they weren't sure what. A few workers grabbed their cell phones and called Brentwood colleagues stationed at other facilities across the area to see if they had any news. Nothing concrete. Just speculation. Was there an actual letter? Had it come from the Postal Service, or from Federal Express or UPS? Maybe it was from a messenger service. No one knew for sure.

At about 7:15 p.m., Jerry Lane, manager of the Postal Service's Capital Metro Operations, gathered V Street employees to share the news. The Postal Service was going to shut down operations and check the building for contamination. "When he mentioned anthrax and the Federal Reserve there was just a gasp," recalls Dyann Waugh, the Postal Service's senior medical director for the Washington area.

At 10 o'clock the next morning, Dena Briscoe joined 17 current and former postal employees in the basement of a public library in Northeast Washington. The chilly, barren room with electrical wires dangling from the ceiling serves as the meeting place for Brentwood Exposed, a support group for employees, most of whom worked at Brentwood. The group that met that morning was all black, an even mixture of women and men. They stood. They held hands and prayed for each other, for their sick co-workers, and, on this day, they prayed that V Street would not suffer the same fate as Brentwood.

The 42-year-old Briscoe laid a set of papers in front of her. She had a gavel, but didn't need it to call the meeting to order. Although soft-spoken, Briscoe had the group's full attention. Everyone in the room knew this was serious business. "It was hard to be around the mail last night," Briscoe said. A mail clerk, Briscoe is working at a facility in suburban Maryland until Brentwood reopens. "They didn't get much [work] out of me," she added. Others nodded affirming Briscoe's anxiety.

She read the Postal Service's announcement that the V Street station was being closed for testing. Read between the lines, she tells the group. "When they say, 'These tests are purely precautionary,' and, 'There is no evidence that any employee or member of the public has been exposed to any health risk,' that's just double talk." They don't know anything for sure, she said. She had heard the same words from her managers at Brentwood.

By Wednesday evening, television cameras filled the long, narrow lobby at Postal Service headquarters in Southwest Washington. A dozen reporters from local news outlets anxiously awaited Thomas Day, the Postal Service's vice president of engineering and the agency's expert on anthrax since the first attacks in October 2001. Shortly after 5 p.m., Day emerged from behind a curtain to face the crowd. Armed with a red laser pointer and poster board pictures of processing equipment, Day gave a detailed briefing on how the V Street facility was tested for contamination. Everything from sorting machines to computer monitors had been checked. The Postal Service took 86 air and surface samples. "We are confident that these results are reliable. We do not have contamination in the government mail sorting facility," he said.

V Street was indeed clean of anthrax. The Federal Reserve had had one more in a string of false positives-tests that initially show traces of anthrax, but prove negative after more rigorous examination. But 24 hours in mid-January provided a stark reminder of just how vulnerable the mail is to a biological attack. They also shed light on the human drama that is unfolding as the Postal Service-and its employees-continue to recover from the 2001 anthrax attacks. The memories of those seven terrifying October days will not soon be forgotten. They are bound to resurface when Brentwood-renamed the Joseph Curseen Jr. and Thomas Morris Jr. Processing and Distribution Center for the two workers who died from anthrax-reopens sometime this summer.

STAYING POSITIVE

Back at V Street, Buchanan walks with confidence. He waves to a handful of employees standing near a row of automated mail processing machines. It's 2 p.m. and all is quiet in the building. Things will be humming in a few hours when the next batch of irradiated federal mail is ready to be sorted and prepared for delivery. Letters and parcels destined for Washington-area federal offices arrive early every morning at a smaller warehouse across the street. They are packaged in secure boxes and containers and shipped to an irradiation facility in New Jersey. Nearly 13 hours later, at about 3 a.m., the mail returns to V Street and is taken to a secure room to air out for 24 hours. Then it is processed and prepared for delivery. Jan. 14 was the only day, including holidays, that V Street stopped operations since it opened in February 2002.

Buchanan is proud of the effort that turned two old warehouses into a vibrant processing plant on V Street. It was a grimy place before, used primarily to store surplus Postal Service materials. Furniture and other supplies were piled to the ceiling. Now the walls and columns are painted red, white and blue. Improved lighting brightens things. The agency started converting the complex in January 2002. It was up and running a month later. More than anything, Buchanan is impressed by the dedication of the employees.

Roughly 500 people work here. Buchanan has 100 employees and five supervisors under his watch. All came from Brentwood. He says nearly 80 percent of them volunteered to come to V Street, knowing full well that they would be handling federal mail. "While it's been a stressful time, my approach may be a little different because of the military training," he says. "I refuse to be bullied or scared. I focus on what I'm supposed to do-take care of my employees, take care of these facilities, ensure the safety and sanctity of the mail. That's what I'm supposed to do. I'm not going to be scared away from that."

It's not bravado. There is sincerity in Buchanan's voice. But he knows full well that not everyone feels the same. Some employees are scared. Some still harbor deep resentment. They feel managers left them in harm's way by not shutting down the Brentwood facility immediately after an anthrax-tainted letter was discovered on Capitol Hill on Oct. 15, 2001. Relying on experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Postal Service officials believed that employees were at minimal risk of exposure. They did not think spores could escape from a sealed envelope. Six days later, the Brentwood facility tested positive for anthrax. Postal Service officials closed the building. A day later, Curseen and Morris died.

To this day, Buchanan thinks senior managers were prudent. Still, he understands the resentment. "It's real easy to sit around and second guess," he says. "We could sit here and talk for days about what could have been done. One thing everyone has to keep in mind, though, is that this was a totally new experience for us."

As he looks to the future, especially toward returning to the Brentwood facility when it reopens later this year, Buchanan anticipates daunting management challenges. While he says he has no anxiety about going back into the building, he understands that others will. It's important for managers to have a united front and to show that they are confident the building is clean and safe. He can't really express how they'll do that, other than by being among the first to enter the plant on the day it reopens and by showing up with a positive attitude.

Just as important will be responding when they raise safety issues, he says. That will put a lot of pressure squarely on the shoulders of front-line supervisors, such as Yolanda Sanders.

The supervisor of distribution operations at Brentwood, Sanders is temporarily stationed at a Maryland facility. "Motivation is going to be the challenge," she says. "As supervisors, we have to treat every situation seriously. We'll have to show serious concern." It's not going to be enough to hold five-minute safety talks at the beginning of every shift, as they do now. Rather, supervisors will need to rebuild trust with employees, who will have to be convinced that when a situation is brought to a supervisor's attention, it will get fair treatment, Sanders says. And for her part, it means getting the same treatment from her superiors. "We can't afford not to have more open lines of communication," she adds. "We can't afford to have another incident."

DYSFUNCTIONAL FAMILY

James Bryant, 65, sits on the sofa in his suburban Maryland apartment. His hands rest in his lap. Sometimes he rubs the band of his watch and looks at the wall straight ahead. The 14-year veteran of the Postal Service has a hard time remembering what happened in October 2001. It's not due to age. It's from the 105-degree fever he had at the time. With the help of his wife, Juanita, 49, he can piece together events. He recalls being at a meeting on the plant floor at Brentwood. He remembers plant manager Timothy Haney professing that the building was safe.

"He guaranteed it," Bryant says in his baritone. "Three times he guaranteed . . ." ". . . that the building was clean," chimes in his wife, who worked at Brentwood for 16 years and is on leave due to a nonanthrax-related injury.

Bryant remembers standing up at the meeting, taking the microphone and thanking Haney for his speech. "I told them how great it is to work for a company that knows there is nothing here to harm us," he says. "It made me feel good. He was telling us we are safe and sound."

That pride and gratitude have given way to bitterness and distrust. Bryant's illness, which his doctor thinks came from the anthrax, forced Bryant to retire at least three years sooner than he had planned. His wife is thankful that he is still alive. They were married just one month before the anthrax attacks. James Bryant became ill the same day as Curseen and Morris.

The Bryants don't hide their bitterness. They think managers deceived workers, keeping them on the job for too long. They call Haney, and even Postmaster General John Potter, liars. They are not alone in their anger. Many Brentwood employees feel betrayed.

Leroy Richmond, a 58-year-old mail clerk with 35 years on the job, is so upset that he has filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against Potter, Haney and another official. Richmond, along with Curseen and Morris, was among the first employees to show signs of anthrax exposure, including a high fever, headaches and tightness in the chest. Richmond hasn't been back to work since the facility shut down. His health problems persist. He alleges that managers showed "deliberate indifference" by not moving quickly to safeguard employees. In early March, Trenton, N.J., workers, whose plant also was contaminated, were contemplating a lawsuit.

Brentwood Exposed, which says it represents hundreds of workers, is considering legal action, too. The group already has asked the Justice Department to launch a criminal investigation into the behavior of plant managers and top agency officials. With the help of Judicial Watch, a Washington-based government watchdog group, and the Freedom of Information Act, Brentwood Exposed obtained copies of a personal log that Postal Service officials confirm was written by Haney. The Oct. 18 entry reads: "I pulled Deborah [Willhite, the agency's former senior vice president for government relations and public policy] aside and let her know that the mail was leaking and we were exposed." Later that day, Potter held a news conference inside Brentwood, professing that employees were safe. The plant was shut down three days later.

Postal Service officials say they can't comment on pending litigation. During the anthrax ordeal, agency officials continually said they were relying on the CDC for guidance. Those words ring hollow for many Brentwood employees. To this day, they wonder why Congress acted so quickly, and the Postal Service didn't, after the first anthrax-filled letter appeared Oct. 15 in Sen. Tom Daschle's office in the Hart Senate Office Building. On Oct. 17, after tests on Senate staffers, even some on the floor below Daschle's office, showed traces of anthrax exposure, all Senate office buildings were closed.

Some postal employees believe race was involved in the Postal Service's decision to wait. Senate staffers are predominately white, and 90 percent of Brentwood employees are black, the workers point out. They also think management didn't want to take the financial hit from closing the Washington area's biggest mail processing facility.

Because of her distrust of managers, Briscoe is determined to force the agency to adopt stricter safety measures. Managers won't act unless you make them, she told the group at the Jan. 15 meeting. She held up a copy of an unsafe working condition form she filed after hearing about the V Street incident. The discovery of anthrax at the Federal Reserve "constitutes an emergency at all suspected facilities," the form reads. "Requests for evacuation and testing of facility have been denied by management at this time." It's important to file these forms right away so there is something on record, she told the group. And they must keep on filing whenever they suspect an unsafe working condition.

Briscoe says managers have been unwilling to sit down with her or other members of Brentwood Exposed to talk about improving safety procedures. But a former Brentwood manager, speaking on condition of anonymity, says Brentwood Exposed has done nothing but drive a wedge between the two sides. Briscoe is all too familiar with such complaints about her and Brentwood Exposed. She doesn't let them bother her. She wants to make sure employees are aware of their rights. "If we can make it better for one person, it is all worth it," she says. "I'm just shocked that management treats people like this. We sit and wonder why. We wonder if we did something wrong."

Briscoe and her colleagues aren't just fighting their managers; they're also struggling to gain acceptance from coworkers at the facilities they went to after Brentwood closed. Briscoe says she found a "cold, cold atmosphere" around employees and managers alike when she arrived for her first day on the job at a suburban Maryland facility. Other Brentwood employees got similar receptions at the five Washington-area plants to which they were sent. Some were called "anthrax workers." Others found that co-workers were afraid to shake hands. Juanita Bryant says her supervisor simply told Brentwood employees to go to the break room because there wasn't enough work for them.

Things have improved, but resentment persists, especially as Brentwood employees consider whether to permanently transfer to their new posts. Normally, anyone transferring to another facility loses seniority. But postal unions are debating whether to grant a one-time exemption for Brentwood employees. An exemption would make staying put, rather than returning to the uncertain environment at Brentwood, an attractive option. Yet Briscoe senses apprehension among some of her colleagues. They worry about being accepted, especially if the seniority clause is waived. Many also are tired of long commutes to the suburban facilities. Meanwhile, the other workers at those facilities worry about losing their rank to Brentwood transfers with more seniority.

MAXIMUM CONCENTRATION

While workers and supervisors wrestle with their anxiety about returning to Brentwood, Thomas Day has adjusted to his role as the Postal Service's anthrax and security expert. The events of October 2001 are burned into his mind. On Oct. 15, he was in Denver at the Postal Service's twice-a-year conference for customers. The postmaster general had just finished his keynote address. Suddenly, senior agency officials gathered in the convention hall lobby. They were just learning of the Daschle letter.

Day can recall, almost to the minute, how events transpired. The postmaster general left for Washington. Day stayed behind with other officials to finish the show. But he spent much of his time on the telephone talking with staff back in Washington. "On Tuesday, Oct. 16, I remember telling the staff, 'Here is the general framework of how we need to take care of this.' From the get-go, we did not focus on anthrax. And I think that was the right approach. The immediate response was anthrax, but we looked at multiple threats. From the very beginning, we looked at explosive, chemical, biological and nuclear threats. Particularly biological, it wasn't just anthrax. We were in the frame of mind of Sept. 11, thinking about everything a terrorist could do."

As vice president of engineering, Day had to quickly figure out what had happened with the Daschle letter and how to safeguard the rest of the mail. It was quite a change from his normal routine of coming up with new ways to process mail and improve operations. For the better part of the two years since, Day's focus has been securing the mail. He expects that will be his top priority for another two years. It is a tough challenge. The agency moves 200 billion pieces of mail a year. It has 282 mail processing plants. And, in an ironic twist, the automation of mail processing during the past decade may prove to be one the agency's biggest vulnerabilities. "Because of all of the publicity we got, there is now a common knowledge about what you can do with a powderized substance in an envelope," Day says. "The automated postal system is, unfortunately, a means to spread a biological threat."

But Day is confident that the agency is on the right track. Initially, the Postal Service considered buying equipment that would neutralize, or irradiate, possible biological threats. But, as the agency has learned by irradiating federal mail, such equipment can damage mail, and it's expensive. Day and his staff have been testing new detection equipment at a Baltimore postal plant since late last year. Day won't specify the types of contaminants the equipment can detect, for fear of giving away information to terrorists. There are plans to roll out the system at 14 more facilities in the next few months. Going nationwide may take longer, since the manufacturer, Northrop Grumman, wants protection from liability if a deadly substance makes its way into the mail stream despite the new equipment. But that's a matter for Congress, not the Postal Service, to work out.

HOMECOMING

On Dec. 14, the Joseph Curseen Jr. and Thomas Morris Jr. Processing and Distribution Center filled with chlorine dioxide. Every window and door of the 17.5 million-cubic-square-foot building had been sealed. A miniature chemical plant built on the facility's loading dock pumped the solution into the building through 25,000 feet of piping.

For John Bridges, incident commander for the Postal Service, Dec. 14 was the culmination of 14 months of hard work. For the first few days after the plant closed, Bridges slept outside it in his Ford Explorer. He was off-site for just 20 days in more than a year.

Bridges and a team of contractors were committed to cleaning the facility no matter the complexity or the doubts. Many of them spent months away from their families. At times, it was tough keeping up morale, Bridges says. But no one ever lost sight of the real reasons they were there.

"Sometimes, going into the building to do performance assessment, you go through someone's cubicle and see that the calendar is still set at October 2001," he says. "You see personal effects, pictures of loved ones." When skeptics questioned whether the building could actually be cleaned, Bridges and his team redoubled their efforts. On March 4, the Postal Service announced that the building was clean-no trace of anthrax.

Now, Brentwood employees face an even bigger challenge-coming back. It will take several months to tear down the mini-chemical plant used for decontamination and to refurbish Brentwood's interior. But what happens when those doors swing open is anybody's guess.

How many workers will be willing to go back? How motivated will they be? And how will employees react the first time a colleague gets sick, even with a run-of-the-mill cold? Questions linger, as Buchanan knows. Briscoe knows, too. And Day knows that he faces a never-ending challenge of protecting employees and the mail.

"It won't be business as usual for a very long time, especially as long as people have fear," says supervisor Sanders. "Fear will be there for me."