Special Report

TERROR BY MAIL

As anthrax fears increase, many Americans are saying return to sender

JONATHON GATEHOUSE November 5 2001
Special Report

TERROR BY MAIL

As anthrax fears increase, many Americans are saying return to sender

JONATHON GATEHOUSE November 5 2001

TERROR BY MAIL

Special Report

As anthrax fears increase, many Americans are saying return to sender

JONATHON GATEHOUSE in Washington and Trenton, NJ.

The mailbox that stands like a sentinel at the end of Gloria Marsh's suburban driveway outside Washington has become a no-go zone. The grandchildren are forbidden to touch it, and when it must be emptied, the 52-year-old food-service worker dons the thick rubber gloves she usually wears on the job. “If I see mail I don’t know, or a handwritten letter from somebody, I treat it differently,” she says. “If there isn’t a return address on a letter, I’m going to call someone. The people who are doing this thing are not going to give up. It’s going to get worse before it gets better.”

The deaths of two Washington postal workers from anthrax poisoning last week,

and the growing number of their colleagues across the country who have tested positive for exposure to the virulent bacteria, has made the mundane seem suddenly dangerous for millions of Americans. More than three weeks after the rare infectious disease first surfaced at a Florida tabloid newspaper, killing a 63-year-old photo editor, the U.S. government has been forced to admit that the safety of the mail cannot be guaranteed.

In Washington, the flow of paper circulating through the bureaucracy has been reduced to an anemic trickle, as new anthrax “hot spots” are discovered daily in government mailrooms and federal post offices. The district’s main mail-sorting facility, where the two victims worked, remains closed for environmental testing and decontamination. The CIA, an army

research institute in Maryland, and the state department, where a mail clerk was diagnosed with inhalation anthrax Thursday, are among the targets of bio terrorism. Activities on Capitol Hill, partly suspended after the discovery more than two weeks ago of anthrax in a letter addressed to Senate Democratic majority leader Tom Daschle, have only partially resumed, as hundreds of legislators await the results of swabs from their offices.

The White House has touched none of its incoming correspondence—40,000 pieces a week on average—since Oct. 11. Last week, the results of environmental samples taken at an off-site presidential mail-sorting facility run by the Secret Service revealed the presence of anthrax spores on the blade of a cutting machine. And President George W. Bush, who in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks has won praise for his unflinching assault on Osama bin Laden and Afghanistan’s Taliban regime, is coming under fire for his government’s stuttering response to the latest threat to domestic security.

In a city that has long stood as a symbol of the persistent economic and racial divides that plague the richest and most powerful country in the world, uncomfortable questions are being raised. Why, ask critics, were 5,000 workers at the Capitol tested for anthrax immediately after the discovery of one tainted letter—while those who handle thousands of pieces of government mail every day were not? Vicki Hunter, a mail clerk at the U.S. Postal Service’s Brentwood mail depot— Washington’s main sorting facility and the locus of the anthrax outbreak—says she and many other black workers at the plant feel the government has let them down. “All they were doing was giving us the runaround,” says Hunter, a union representative and 35-year veteran of the post office. “If it had been a white facility, they would have moved faster.”

Environmental samples from the squat

brown postal facility, located several miles from the heart of Washington in a neighbourhood of aging factories and fast-food outlets, have shown evidence of anthrax in at least 14 separate areas of the plant. Doctors are monitoring 31 other workers who they believe might have been infected. Thirty-six neighbourhood postal outlets in Washington are being tested for the presence of spores, and all postal vehicles in the city have undergone decontamination procedures. Some 8,000 postal workers in Washington, New York City and New Jersey—the other parts of the country where anthrax-laced letters have been discovered—have now had their nasal cavities swabbed and have been given preventive courses of ciprofloxacin (Cipro), the most effective antibiotic for the disease.

Elsewhere, 200 East Coast postal outlets are being screened. Mail workers were also being tested and urged to wear rubber gloves and masks when handling letters—precautions the post

office says it will make mandatory as soon as it can obtain sufficient supplies. Standing outside the Brentwood plant, Dana Johnson, a 38-year-old letter carrier, flings his cigarette to the ground in disgust at the notion of making his rounds dressed like a surgeon. “How long can you do that?” he asks. “Everyone on the street is already saying, ‘I don’t want to touch the mail.’ ”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which last dealt with a case of inhalation anthrax in 1978, says the letter-borne outbreak has turned conventional wisdom about the disease on its head. “The Brentwood situation has led us to re-evaluate the science,” said Rima Khabbaz, deputy director of the viral disease branch. The finely milled anthrax powder sent to Daschle appears to have been potent enough to infect through the envelope, the spores travelling relatively great distances whenever the letter was touched or squeezed, possibly contaminating other pieces of mail. Compressed air used to clean dust from postal sorting machines may have carried the bacteria even farther.

As public confidence wanes, the U.S. Postal Service is battling to convince consumers the mail is safe. Bush has already released about $265 million in emergency funding for the post office to help purchase updated safety equipment. But John Potter, the postmaster general, has suggested the final bill for installing machinery to bombard each and every letter and package with bacteria-killing ultraviolet light will be closer to $940 million. Noises are also being made about the financial challenge now facing the mail service, with some officials comparing the situation to the damage the Sept. 11 hijackings inflicted on the airline industry, which is getting a $23-billion federal bailout.

There are still bursts of bravado in the new Washington—a city of blocked-off streets, bombsniffing dogs and hazardousmaterial teams dressed like a 1950s vision of space aliens. On Capitol Hill, Congressman Gary Ackerman set up a mobile office in the parking lot, managing his affairs from a card table and the back of a minivan strategically placed in front of the camera platforms being used by television crews. His colleagues from the House and Senate, undoubtedly crestfallen that they didn’t think of the stunt first, jeered as the cameras rolled. “If you’re getting paid to work, you work,” proclaimed Ackerman, a Democrat who represents New York’s fifth district on Long Island.

In Trenton, N.J., where at least three of the anthrax letters, including those addressed to Daschle and NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw, were postmarked, emergency services have been stretched to the limit. “People are calling about powdered sugar, salt, talcum powder, cleanser, you name it,” says Mark Buriani, a fireman with the city’s Engine Company No. 5. “We had one call because of bird shit on the mailbox.” At nearby Princeton University, a building was evacuated after a student found white powder on a desk; it turned out to be dust left by contractors who had been sanding drywall.

FBI agents and postal inspectors have been scouring Trenton for the source of the anthrax, but so far no arrests have been made. Federal officials have confirmed that the anthrax used in the attacks is from the Ames strain, used domestically in labs for vaccine and bioresearch. In the absence of suspects or claims of responsibility, officials are still coy about their conclusions, although links to bin Fadens Al-Qaeda or-

ganization are widely presumed. The apartments and hangouts of the 19 hijackers identified so far are being tested for traces of anthrax. Two men detained in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks— Mohammed Jaweed Azmath and Ayub Ali Khan—lived and worked in Trenton. They were arrested on Sept. 12, on a train in Fort Worth, Tex., carrying box cutters, hair dye and almost $8,000 in cash.

The U.S. Postal Service’s Hamilton County sorting plant near Trenton, which handles the region’s mail, was shut down last week for tests and decontamination work after health officials, according to some reports, found anthrax spores on 38 of the 82 surfaces they tested in the building. In neighbouring Bordentown, a Frank Capraesque community of stately old churches and homes, clerks at Mast Pharmacy and Surgical Supply, the oldfashioned drug store on the main street, have been inundated with callers seeking rubber gloves, gowns and respirators. Jeffrey Topley, the owner, says there has also been an increased stream of prescriptions for Cipro and tranquillizers. “There are a lot of questions and concerns,” says the druggist. “Everyone is feeding off the news media. They want peace of mind.”

Along with the fear, there are signs of loathing. Down the highway at Pauls Service Center (“a family business since

1942”), a hand-made red, white and blue banner proclaims that the gas station is “American Owned.” “It brings in a lot more business,” confides Fouis Pétrucci, the gas jockey manning the pumps. “A lot of the stations in the area are owned by foreigners, especially Pakistanis.”

Many Americans are resisting the descent into panic, despair and recriminations. Bush’s pleas to citizens to continue with their normal lives has struck a chord. Perspective, hard as it is to maintain in times of national crisis, suggests he is right. In a nation of some 280 million people, there are slightly more than a dozen confirmed cases of the disease that has become the No. 1 threat in the publics imagination. Most who have contracted anthrax are expected to make full recoveries.

Back on Washington’s historic National Mall, Tom Ayers and his wife, Gina, pause before the black granite slash of the Vietnam War Memorial to pay their respects to the fallen. Earlier in the day, the American Airlines pilot from Charlottesville, Va., visited the Pentagon to pray for his friends and colleagues who were aboard Flight 77, the hijacked plane that crashed into the defence department’s headquarters. “Anthrax doesn’t change anything for me,” he says, squinting in the strong fall sun. “We’re living our lives the way we did before. That’s how we win. We live our lives.” E¡3