WASHINGTON – Postal workers who returned to work Saturday said a package that ignited at a government mail facility conjured painful memories of the anthrax attacks that killed two of their colleagues in 2001.
The fiery package found Friday, which was addressed to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, followed two packages that ignited Thursday in Maryland state government mailrooms. It halted government mail until bomb-sniffing dogs could sweep the D.C. facility.
Mail processing resumed Saturday morning after a meeting with workers, the local postmaster and the workers' union.
Postal workers union President Dena Briscoe said that the meeting was helpful but that the fiery package worried many employees. She said most of the postal workers also were sorting D.C. mail back in 2001, when letters containing anthrax were sent to lawmakers and news organizations as the nation was still reeling from the 9/11 attacks.
"One of the ladies was crying because these episodes are bringing those feelings and those emotions and those memories back," Briscoe said. "We want them to feel safe and secure and be able to trust management to respond properly if this were to happen again." Postal officials installed new sensors and other safety equipment in the wake of the anthrax mailings.
When the popping and smoking package was discovered Friday, postal service managers failed to follow proper safety procedures, Briscoe said.
The evacuation process was "very sloppy," she said, because workers in the back of the building had no idea they were supposed to evacuate. Managers should have made an announcement on the public address system, she said.
Helen Lewis, a mail processing clerk at the D.C. facility, said co-workers told her management had trouble deciding whether to evacuate the building and wanted to wait for postal inspectors or police to decide. A worker ended up flagging down a police car, and workers said police evacuated the building.
"That's not good enough," she said. "This is not a suspicious package. This is a package that went off."
People in the back of the building didn't know about the ignited package until police arrived, Lewis said.
"We have two employees who passed" because of anthrax, she said, adding that workers need information in an emergency to keep themselves safe. "Something is wrong with that picture right there. We must do better."
Workers said they should have been given mandatory talks on safety procedures early Friday because the Maryland packages had been sent through the U.S. mail system.
The area the package ignited in was properly isolated, though, and the emergency response improved as more agencies got involved, Briscoe said.
Washington Postmaster Gerald Roane met with about 40 workers early Saturday and acknowledged some things could have been handled better, Briscoe said. A U.S. Postal Service spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
"Employees let him know that this brings them back to the anthrax experience" when workers felt their safety wasn't a priority, Briscoe said. "Safety needs to be much more effective in the Postal Service."
Workers at the postal facility where two workers died had sued the Postal Service for failing to protect them, but a federal judge ruled in 2004 that the service is immune.
By Saturday, postal workers had each been given a photograph of the original Maryland package and were briefed on how the package addressed to Napolitano was similar. Briscoe also was urging Roane to establish worker safety committees to better prepare employees. At least one worker asked for thicker gloves to protect their hands.
The Maryland packages burned the fingers of state workers as they were opened. The packages carried a message railing against highway signs that urge motorists to report suspicious activity. The message read: "Report suspicious activity! Total Bull----! You have created a self fulfilling prophecy."
In July, Napolitano launched a nationwide "see something, say something" campaign similar to the signs, reminding commuters to report suspicious behavior.
Authorities fear there could be more packages.
"We've got to make sure we go after this person and get them off the street and get them behind bars, because these kinds of things are very, very dangerous," Maryland State Police Col. Terrence Sheridan said Friday.
Police in D.C. and Maryland on Saturday had not identified a suspect or where the packages originated. Investigators were searching for disgruntled people who've made threats against the government.
Anyone arrested would be charged with possession and use of an incendiary device, which includes a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison, authorities said.
Dangerous devices sent through the mail remain extremely rare, postal inspectors said, with 13 such cases reported since 2005.
That's not much comfort for Leroy Richmond, 66, who retired from the postal service after two of his co-workers died in the anthrax attacks. The postal facility that had been contaminated has since been renamed in honor of those who died — Joseph Curseen Jr., 47, and Thomas Morris Jr., 55.
The fiery packages were much different than the anthrax letters, but workers must remain vigilant, he said.
"I'm truly worried because I know initially when the anthrax bacteria went through ... it seemed as though the post office was more concerned about moving the mail and not losing money, as opposed to not losing people's lives," Richmond said. "I don't want that to ever happen again because I lost two friends that way."