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This article was prepared for the April 9, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Excerpt: `Killer Strain’
Marilyn W. Thompson’s book on the anthrax attacks for
which central New Jersey residents had front row seats reads like
a fast-paced novel. But "The Killer Strain" (HarperCollins
Publishers) is a true story, centered around Leroy "Rich"
Richmond, a worker assigned to Washington’s Brentwood postal center.
The book opens with a look at an already-sick Richmond preparing to
leave for the 53-mile commute to his job. Readers soon learn that
Richmond’s wife is a postal worker also, and that their combined wages
are not enough to allow for repairs on his car radio. Richmond, with
no radio news to listen to during his long commute, is not even aware
of the anthrax scare.
The book is filled with such poignant details, including a look at
Richmond’s stoicism as he works in an enormous, cacophonous building
nicknamed "the field," because nearly all of its workers are
black, and nearly all of the supervisors are white. In this setting,
Richmond, a 34-year, $13-an-hour employee, who had long ago learned
the futility of asking for favors, was loathe to make a fuss as he
became acutely ill. Unable to get a supervisor to pay attention when
he asked for a note to see the facility’s nurse, Richmond stole into
an office and made out his own pink slip, only to be told to take
Meanwhile, Thompson tells us, staffers on Capitol Hill were being
given blood tests and doses of Cipro just in case they might have
At last, Richmond was hospitalized in critical condition, and nearly
died. Here is an excerpt from Thompson’s book that talks a about Richmond’s
history with the post office and his ordeal in the hospital:
a USPS recruiter made an irresistible offer: a job paying $1.08 more
an hour than the State Department. He grabbed the opportunity.
He started work at the old mail distribution center on North Capitol
Street, Brentwood’s predecessor. He had never forgotten the stress
of that day, and it came back in his fitful sleep.
"It was like hell breaking loose.You didn’t stay on one assignment
longer than ten minutes. You were herded around like cattle,"
Zip-code school demanded quick, flawless memorization. "Because
I was dealing basically with airmail, I had to learn all the areas
of the zip codes of New York," he said. He studied for three months,
but when the time came to take the exam, his bosses abruptly moved
him to carrier detail.
For almost a year, Rich carried mail through the streets of Maryland
and Virginia. His supervisors would lay out a route, drop him off,
and give him bus tokens to get back to the office.
"I learned how to carry the mail, and they said, `No, now we want
you to learn Friendship Heights,"’ an upscale Washington, D.C.,
neighborhood. He went back to school for thirty more days, only to
get a new assignment soon after.
Brentwood pounded twenty-four hours a day with the sounds of thirty
churning machines, each manned by four workers. When one employee
took a break, another took over, feeding thousands of letters into
equipment that made the whole building smell of warm paper.The noise
blended into a smooth cacophony, and then a warning bell would jangle.
"Move over there!" a supervisor would bark.
Rich had made it thirty-four years, finally pulling in $13 an hour
and an extra $300 each week in overtime. After all this, it was telling,
he thought, that he should contract anthrax not doing his regular
job but following instructions to leave his post and clean up behind
Joseph Curseen’s machine.
He remembered seeing the cleaning man approach Machine No. 17, wearing
a face mask and carrying pressurized air. In keeping with the regular
routine, the man opened the nozzle and sprayed.
The air went everywhere. A hot blast punched Rich in the face. Later,
the Brentwood managers concluded that the cleaning had sprayed anthrax
spores throughout the building and caused them to settle deep in Rich’s
From his hospital bed, the whirring sounds of Brentwood’s machinery
had been replaced by clanking noises from construction outside his
room. When Rich had checked in, he peered out his window at an eight-story
parking tower surrounded by demolition equipment.
The next time he mustered the strength to look outside, the parking
garage was gone.
When Susan (Richmond’s wife) led Quentin (their son) by the hand to
visit Rich Saturday morning around 9:30 a.m., she was stopped at the
"The FBI’s in there," a nurse cautioned, partially blocking
"You need to move out of my way!" Susan growled, pushing her
way inside. Two agents from the Washington field office sat by Rich’s
bedside. The Brentwood facility, they told him, was now part of a
criminal investigation, and they needed facts: Where did he think
he came into contact with the anthrax? With whom did he work? What
was his work history? She listened with building irritation as she
watched her husband gasping for breath, struggling to respond.
"He can’t answer you. He can’t even talk," she finally exploded.
Barely audibly he whispered, "It’s okay dear."
The others who came to interview Rich were no more sympathetic. The
CDC doctors asked so many questions about his health history and the
sudden onset of the illness that Rich felt as if they were trying
to disprove his anthrax diagnosis. His grown daughter, Alicia, who
practically lived by his hospital bedside, finally ordered the feds
out of the room so he could get some rest.
Susan had been afraid to allow Quentin to see his ailing father among
the tubes and machines, but the child was just happy to see his dad.
Leroy was the one who broke down. "He was like, `Oh my God, my
baby’s seeing me sick!’" Susan recalled.
Throughout the morning, Susan persisted in her efforts to alert Brentwood
to the dangers employees were facing. Finally, she reached one of
"You need to get out of there!" she almost screamed. "The
building’s contaminated, and you all need to shut it down!"
The building stayed open. She got through to a girlfriend from Brentwood,
who spread the word.
Still, the production lines churned, the warning dismissed. Someone
scoffed that Susie Richmond, a believer in long coffee breaks and
chatty lunch hours, was just trying to find a way to stay home from
Susan was livid. "If I just want to be home, why would I lie and
say he’s got inhalation anthrax?"
By Sunday, postal officials shut down the plant and workers lined
up for free antibiotics. Susan was among them. Similar lines had formed
in New Jersey near the Hamilton plant, although workers there had
grown increasingly distrustful of anything the government doctors
or postal management told them to do. When doctors decided to switch
the recommended antibiotic from Cipro to Doxycycline because of its
lower cost and reduced side effects, incensed Hamilton workers, who
complained that they were being used as "guinea pigs" in a
Back at the hospital, Rich’s health declined rapidly. His skin turned
gray, and he had grown progressively weaker. His chest was filled
with bloody mucus, which he often spat into a tissue with a deep racking
On Monday, as Susan made her way back to visit him, a Brentwood friend
called her to express condolences. The television news had reported
the death of an unnamed Brentwood worker; many assumed it was Rich.
Susan broke down and wept, then called the hospital and asked to speak
to Carl Asper, an intensive care nurse. The doctors had given her
a code word, "cake," which she could use to get immediate
"This is Mrs. Richmond, and the code word is `cake’," she
said, trying to control her sobs. "How’s my baby doing?"
The nurse reported that he was fine. The television account had been
about the death of Brentwood coworker Mo Morris of Suitland, Maryland,
who had fallen ill over the weekend. Meanwhile, in southern Maryland,
the family of Joseph Curseen, the Brentwood Bible-study leader, had
rushed to his hospital bedside. Machine No. 17, the same piece of
equipment that left his friend Rich struggling for life, had infected
Curseen. (Richmond recovered, but Curseen did not.
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