September 11th and the Attacks that Followed – When Anthrax Contaminates Your US Post Office
Hamilton, NJ: Following September 11, 2001, the John Rafferty US Mail Processing Plant and US Post Office Hamilton, NJ building was contaminated during the October attack. John Ongrady, retired US Postal Sorting Plant employee who survived the Anthrax attack 2001, and Hurricane Sandy 2012, remembers the workplace disaster.
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vis nj.com – It started September 2001, just one week after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 stunned the nation.
The letters, handwritten and addressed in clumsy block letters, were dated Sept. 18, 2001. Two made their way to Tom Brokaw at NBC News and the New York Post, another two postmarked Oct. 9 wound their way through the mail to two U.S. senators.
All four letters contained anthrax.
All four bore a Trenton postmark.
The letters were routed through the Hamilton post office on Route 130, the massive distribution center that processed mail for nearly 50 post offices in the greater Trenton area.
By Oct. 18, the same day the anthrax letters claimed their first victim, the Hamilton facility shut down as it became increasingly apparent the building was indeed contaminated with spores from the deadly anthrax bacterium.
Within days, weeks, panic set in.
Tasks as mundane as opening the mail became fraught with tension and worry. Postal workers and residents made a run on rubber gloves and Cipro, the antibiotic used to treat anthrax infections.
And Hamilton, a suburb far from the national spotlight, became what one counterterrorism official called “the epicenter of the anthrax attack on the United States.”
Anthrax ultimately killed five people and sickened 17 more, including six local residents, who contracted both skin and inhalation anthrax. Five worked for the post office. Another, a Hamilton accountant, is believed to have handled contaminated mail.
Brokaw never received the letter sent to him. It was opened by a staffer. The two senators didn’t get sick with anthrax either.
The Hamilton distribution center was shut down for more than four years. Throughout that period, it was scoured, gassed and decontaminated with hundreds of gallons of chlorine dioxide gas to rid the walls, floors and machinery of anthrax spores. The cleanup cost $65 million.
Post offices in West Windsor, Princeton Borough, Rocky Hill, Trenton, Jackson and Bellmawr also eventually tested positive for anthrax, a result of cross-contamination from letters.
Before 2001, “if you said anthrax and asked anyone on the street if they knew anything about the word, they probably associated it with the (heavy metal) musical group,” said Leonard Cole, an adjunct professor at Rutgers University who has written two books on the anthrax attacks. “It became a household concern very soon after we realized it had contaminated millions and millions of postal items,” he said.
ANTHRAX GROUND ZERO
Tiny amounts of the fine powder had the potential to turn ordinary pieces of mail — letters, bills, birthday cards — into weapons.
And Hamilton quickly became ground zero for anthrax, the place where the contaminated letters were routed and sent out to New York, Virginia and Washington, D.C.
Anywhere from seven to 10 anthrax-laced letters are believed to have been sent, though not all were found. The four letters that were found are all believed to have been processed in Hamilton.
Each contained about a half-teaspoon of anthrax powder, Cole said, just a gram or two.
“You take the entire volume of spores that were mailed out and you could equate it to a small bottle of aspirin tablets,” he said. “You see how small this quantity is and yet it caused such havoc and such distribution.”
The Hamilton facility employed more than 1,200 people at the time. Four workers, including a maintenance employee, were infected, either from handling contaminated letters or breathing in spores spread by sorting and processing machines. Another, a West Trenton postal carrier with a route in Ewing, was believed to have been sickened from letters that sat in a contaminated bin.
Few have spoken to the media in recent years. None returned calls from The Times for this article.
“She doesn’t want to talk about it at all. She wants it dropped from her mind,” said a man who picked up the phone at the Hamilton home of the accountant who contracted skin anthrax, one form of the disease. Other victims came down with another form: inhalation anthrax, which is caused by breathing in the spores.
Hundreds of workers began taking Cipro at the time of the attack, at clinics set up at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Hamilton after Glen Gilmore, Hamilton’s mayor at the time, complained of the U.S. Postal Service’s slow response to the growing crisis.
In the years since, employees have recalled the uncertainty of that period, the helplessness of not knowing whether or not you’d been exposed.
“It was really scary,” said Grace Piontek, who was a rural mail carrier in Chesterfield. “We didn’t know if we were infected or not infected, whether it was still in the building. We were left in the blue.”
Piontek, who retired three years ago, took the recommended Cipro doses and wound up sorting mail in the tents set up outside the facility as it was closed and cleaned.
She kept a few mementos of that day, a jacket emblazoned with the Oct. 18 closure date, a cover of the New York Times with a photo of her and other postal workers, encouraging letters and cards that people on her route left her.
She doesn’t think about the anthrax often. It pops up into her mind sometimes if she catches a glimpse of her jacket or meets up with an old co-worker.
“But even when I talk to people and they say, ‘Where did you work?’ I say ‘The anthrax post office,’” she said. “And that’s when they know.”
It’s now been 10 years since the threat of anthrax seized a country already reeling from another terrorist attack.
For many, the anthrax threat is now a footnote in history, eclipsed by 9/11 and the threat of new, rapidly evolving terrorist plots.
The Hamilton post office reopened March 13, 2005, after the massive decontamination. Millions of dollars have been spent on installing new biohazard detection systems and mail screening equipment to protect workers from anthrax and other materials.
The biodetection system has conducted more than 10 million DNA-based screenings of mail.
Since 2001, more than 52,000 suspicious mail incidents have been logged across the country.
“For me, it’s hard to believe it’s been 10 years,” said Gilmore, the former Hamilton mayor.
“In some sense it seems like 100 years and then it seems like only yesterday it occurred,” he said. “I’d hope especially for those who are tasked with caring for public safety that the lessons aren’t lost and it hasn’t faded from memory.”
Much more is known about the attacks now than in the initial weeks when Bob Stevens, a Florida man who was the first known victim, checked into a hospital.
The origin of the letters, a Nassau Street mailbox in Princeton Borough, has been pinpointed with some certainty.
A suspect, government researcher Bruce Ivins, emerged after several false starts and immense pressure on the FBI and federal government to find the sender and creator of the deadly letters.
Ivins later killed himself by overdosing on Tylenol as the FBI was closing in.
The FBI closed its case in 2010, confident Ivins, an obsessive, troubled Army microbiologist, was their man.
But skepticism still dogs the FBI’s decision to close out its investigation, and some still question whether Ivins was the perpetrator, and if he worked alone.
A 2011 report released by the National Academy of Sciences cast some doubt on FBI evidence linking the mailed anthrax to anthrax kept by Ivins.
U.S. Rep. Rush Holt (D-Pennington) has pushed for a congressional commission, like the 9/11 Commission, to further investigate the attacks, their perpetrator and the FBI and government’s preparedness and response.
“It’s not just about that series of occurrences back in 2001,” said Holt. “It really has to do with how well-prepared we are to prevent or respond to or investigate any future occurrences. We were just not very well-prepared. It took weeks for anybody to figure out what was going on.”
Government has taken notice, dramatically upping funding for bioterrorism in the last decade.
Before 2001, the National Institute of Health spent close to $200 million per year on biodefense-related projects, Cole said.
Since the anthrax attacks, that amount has ranged from $1.6 billion to the $1.3 billion allocated this fiscal year.
Before anthrax, the U.S. government had devised bioterrorism scenarios involving crop dusters, ventilation systems, urban subways, Cole said, but not necessarily the Postal Service.
“The mail turned out to be an extremely effective conveyor of a deadly agent to so many people,” Cole said. “Who, before 9/11, thought there’d be hijackings of several planes almost simultaneously and crashing them into buildings? All of these came as improbable and we were less prepared for that.”
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