A U.S. Postal Inspection Service video highlighting the anthrax display in the National Postal Museum’s “Behind the Badge” exhibition.
Weeks after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, our nervous nation faced a new danger—poison in the mail. Members of the media and two U.S. senators received mail containing anthrax. Handling contaminated mail caused the deaths of five people, including postal workers Joseph Curseen, Jr and Thomas Morris. Seventeen others were sickened, including Postal Inspector William Palisak.
Hi. I’m Andrea Avery, United States Postal Inspector. We’re here at the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum where the anthrax story is told.
Until this case, officials believed that anthrax could not escape through an envelope. But, they were wrong. Tiny spores of anthrax spread as the letters passed through automated sorting equipment, threatening the lives of postal workers and the very infrastructure of mail service.
Victims included civilians in states along the East Coast. But postal workers at the Brentwood Postal Facility in Washington, DC and the Trenton Postal Distribution Center in New Jersey were particularly hard hit.
The journey of the anthrax-laced letters began when they were mailed from this collection box in Princeton, New Jersey. The decontamination process left the dust you see.
This threatening message, along with a powdery substance identified as anthrax, was sent to the office of Senator Tom Daschle and NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw. The examination and decontamination processes left them nearly illegible.
This photo shows the original envelope and letter, before it was discolored and darkened during the decontamination process.
To protect their own health, Postal Inspectors wear respirator masks and hazardous materials or “HAZMAT” suits in locations that may have been contaminated by anthrax or other biohazards.
Despite the danger, inspectors wearing HAZMAT suits regularly entered the “hot zone” to recover mail, evidence, and other items.
The Brentwood Postal Facility in Washington, DC and the Trenton Postal Distribution Center in New Jersey were closed for years for decontamination. Upon reopening, Brentwood was renamed The Curseen-Morris Mail Processing and Distribution Center in honor of Joseph Curseen, Jr and Thomas Morris, the postal workers who died of anthrax inhalation.
On the heels of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the anthrax attacks—and subsequent copycat hoaxes—fed a worldwide paranoia. People feared poison could enter their homes in an innocent-looking envelope.
In response, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service joined forces with the FBI to create the Amerithrax Task Force. This special team led a complex investigation that involved experts in microbiology and chemistry, and bio-weapons specialists from government, university, and commercial laboratories.
Over the course of the 9-year investigation, members of the Amerithrax team:
- interviewed ten thousand witnesses on 6 continents
- recovered over six thousand pieces of potential evidence
- issued five thousand seven hundred and fifty grand jury subpoenas
- gathered five thousand seven hundred and thirty environmental samples from sixty locations, and
- scrutinized over 1,000 possible suspects
The case was closed in 2010 with the conclusion that the anthrax mailer had killed himself in 2008. Since 2001, USPS has instituted security measures, including biohazard detection equipment, to prevent this from happening again, and thankfully, it has worked.