The U.S. Postal Inspection Service


In a Time of Terror
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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.

On October 2, 2001, with the nation still recovering from the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a Florida newspaper employee, Robert Stevens, was hospitalized and died three days later from inhalation anthrax. On November 21, 2001 New England native Ottilie Lundgren died from inhalation anthrax. The weeks between these deaths brought the nation face to face with a new fear that a common part of their daily routine—the mail—had turned deadly.

Twenty-two people were infected with spores from the anthrax letter attacks. The letters, addressed to government officials and members of the media, led to the infection of nine U.S. postal workers and the death of two. Before the end of that October, the American public had become frighteningly familiar with phrases like cross-contamination, bioterrorism, and the difference between inhalation and cutaneous (skin contact) infections.

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This envelope contained anthrax that was mailed to Senator Patrick Leahy in 2001.  Courtesy of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

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Letters like this one mailed to Senator Leahy were also sent to Senator Tom Daschle and news agencies.  Courtesy of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

At first, authorities had no idea how or where Stevens had been contaminated. On October 8, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft told reporters that they did not yet have enough information to say “whether or not this could be related to terrorism” or what he called “an occurrence.” The next day, the FBI took over the investigation and by October 11, after a second newspaper mailroom employee was found to have been exposed to anthrax, officials focused on the newspaper’s mailroom, and by extension, the mail.

The mail link drew national attention after an assistant to Tom Brokaw of NBC News tested positive for anthrax infection. She remembered that a threatening letter she opened two weeks earlier contained “a sandlike substance.”(1) Many began to approach their mail with extra caution. Herbert Bush of Flushing, New York began handling his mail with gloves, “I keep it at a distance and wear gloves definitely. I told my wife and daughter not to be too anxious to open anything.”(2)

Speculations flew over motives for the mailings; many feared they were a continuation of the 9/11 attacks. The fears were widespread. In Berlin, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder’s office was sealed off after white powder leaked from a letter in the mailroom. Similar discoveries led to led 55 people being taken to hospitals in Paris, the evacuation of Canterbury Cathedral in London, the evacuation of Canada’s main Parliament building, and the closing of the international airport terminal in Vienna in the weeks following Stevens’ death.

Two letters, addressed to Senators Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Tom Daschle of South Dakota, carrying the fictional return address of “4th Grade / Greendale School / Franklin Park NJ 08852, entered the mail stream in Princeton, New Jersey. They passed through the Hamilton Township facility in New Jersey, and later the Brentwood facility in Washington, DC. Senator Daschle’s letter had traveled to the Capitol from Brentwood while Senator Leahy’s letter was sidetracked to the State Department after a computer misread the letter’s ZIP code from 20510 for 20520.

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    The anthrax decontamination treatment changed the appearance of this envelope addressed to Senator Daschle.  Courtesy of the Federal Bureau of Investigation

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    Threatening letter sent to Senator Majority Leader Tom Daschle.  Courtesy of the Federal Bureau of Investigation

    On October 17, the U.S. Capitol was shut down after employees in Senator Daschle’s office tested positive for exposure, but the Hamilton Township and Brentwood facilities continued to process mail. The day after the Capitol shut down, a Hamilton postal worker tested positive for cutaneous (skin contact) anthrax. A second worker from the same facility tested positive the next day. Meanwhile, at Washington, DC’s Brentwood postal facility, postal workers continued work as usual. Senior postal officials were assured by Centers for Disease Control experts that the envelopes carrying anthrax were not a danger to postal workers.

    The experts did not realize that because of the way mail moves through the mostly automated systems in postal facilities, the nation’s postal workers were on the front line of this particular terrorist attack. When the anthrax letters passed through sorting centers they were shaken, squeezed, and jostled by machinery that culled, cancelled, processed, and sorted them. Not only did the pressure of the processing machines force spores into the open air, but the routine use of blowing air to clean machines and surrounding areas spread those spores even further. The spores that escaped the envelopes in sorting centers also found their way onto other envelopes in a cross-contamination scenario that was also unanticipated by field experts.

    The Hamilton facility closed for testing on October 18. The Brentwood facility remained open and operational. In the meantime, some of the Washington postal workers had begun seeking medical treatment for virus-like symptoms. One was Thomas Morris Jr., a distribution clerk in the Brentwood facility. His symptoms began on October 17, but were considered the result of a simple virus. In the early morning hours of the next Sunday, Morris called 911 to report his breathing was “very, very labored.” He arrived by ambulance at the hospital but died only a few hours later from anthrax inhalation. The same Sunday morning a second Brentwood postal worker, Joseph Curseen Jr., arrived at a local hospital emergency room with flu-like symptoms. Doctors sent him home where his symptoms worsened, and he returned to the hospital. He died six hours after his second arrival, also from anthrax inhalation.

    Joseph Curseen Jr.

    Thomas Morris Jr.

    Above: Joseph Curseen Jr. and Thomas Morris Jr. were the two postal workers who were killed during the Anthrax terror attacks. The Washington, DC, postal facility formerly known as Brentwood was renamed the Curseen-Morris facility in their honor.

    The Brentwood facility closed on October 21. The nation’s focus turned from the U.S. Capitol, which reopened on the next day, to the postal facilities and their stricken workers. In spite of prevailing expert opinion, it had become clear that anthrax spores not only could escape from envelopes, but in fact had done so in alarming numbers. The seven other postal workers infected with anthrax survived.

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    This flag was discolored during the decontamination process used at the Curseen-Morris Processing and Distribution Center.

    The Brentwood facility reopened in 2003 after a cleaning and decontamination process that cost $130 million. The Hamilton postal facility reopened in March 2005 at the cost of $65 million.

    In recognition of the deaths of Brentwood’s postal workers, the facility was official renamed Curseen-Morris. On February 19, 2010, the FBI and U.S. Postal Inspection Service announced that the investigation of the anthrax letters was over, with evidence pointing to Dr. Bruce Ivins, a government scientist, as the culprit. Ivins, aware of the government’s suspicions, had committed suicide in July 2008.

    1. “Anthrax Found in NBC News Aide,” New York Times, October 13, 2001 p. A1.
    2. “Scares over Anthrax Send Jitters Through the U.S. Mail,” New York Times, October 14, 2001, p. A31.