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Fri, Nov 09, 2001 - Page 5 News List

Postal worker's last words launch probe


The dying words of a Washington postal worker are prompting inspectors to probe whether a central post office handled a letter containing anthrax that -- so far -- investigators had not known existed.

Thomas Morris Jr. told 911 emergency telephone operators hours before he died last month of inhaled anthrax that he thought he had the disease -- despite a doctor's dismissal. He said he recalled a co-worker having handled a powder-containing letter a week earlier.

"My breathing is very, very labored," Morris said on the 911 tape. "I don't know if I have been, but I suspect that I might have been exposed to anthrax."

Morris was one of two Washington postal workers who died of inhalation anthrax last month, setting off a massive investigation that has closed contaminated post offices and put thousands of workers on protective antibiotics.

Both men worked at the Brentwood mail processing facility, which handled the anthrax-tainted letter Senate Majority Leader Thomas Daschle had received a week before Morris' 911 call.

Daschle's letter was sealed with tape. Until the Washington postal deaths, medical authorities hadn't thought that enough anthrax could escape a sealed letter to harm -- but nor did they have, until now, real reason to suspect another letter had triggered the Brentwood illnesses.

During his 911 call, Morris was calm, but breathing laboriously as he described a coworker's finding an envelope containing powder. He said he hadn't handled the envelope, but had been nearby.

"I couldn't even find out if the stuff was or it wasn't" anthrax, he said. "I was told that it wasn't, but I have a tendency not to believe these people."

"We don't know for certain what he [was] talking about," Deborah Willhite, a Postal Service senior vice president, said on Wednesday.

Inspectors began interviewing Morris' co-workers Wednesday to try to reconstruct the event. That is difficult because they don't have access to work records inside Brentwood, which is sealed awaiting decontamination.

"I'm not downplaying what Morris experienced because we don't know for sure, but it could or could not be a significant lead," Willhite said, noting that post offices routinely handled damaged mail containing sugar or other such substances. "We just simply won't know until we can reconstruct what went on at that point in time."

Three days before his death, Morris had gone to a doctor who dismissed the anthrax worry.

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