Closure difficult for anthrax survivors

Some see suicide of suspect Ivins as end, but ill effects of exposure remain

August 02, 2008|By Sumathi Reddy | Sumathi Reddy,Sun Reporter

For some, like Leroy Richmond, this is the end, closure to the mystery that left him infected with anthrax and two of his friends dead.

But for others, like Wanda Morris, the television images of the man authorities believe was responsible for the anthrax attacks that killed her father-in-law served only to open up the wounds once again.

"You're trying to bring a closure to it, but it keeps coming back at you," said Morris, 39, of Suitland. "There's no justice when they haven't caught anybody."

The suicide of Bruce E. Ivins, a government researcher who became the target of a federal investigation into the 2001 anthrax attacks, brought mixed reactions from victims. Ivins' attorney released a statement yesterday proclaiming his client's innocence and saying that pressure from federal prosecutors led to his death.

The anthrax powder that surfaced in postal facilities, newspaper offices, TV stations and congressional offices killed five people and left 17 ill.

Two postal workers from the former Brentwood Mail Processing and Distribution Center in Washington were killed, as well a Florida photo editor, a New York hospital worker and a 94-year-old woman in Connecticut.

For Richmond, 64, the anthrax that he was exposed to left him in the hospital for a month with a serious respiratory infection and with mental and physical impairments he lives with today.

It also left him with two fewer friends. Joseph P. Curseen, 47, and Thomas Morris Jr., 55, were Richmond's colleagues and dear friends.

"I played cards with Mr. Morris," said Richmond, who lives in Stafford County, Virginia. "Curseen and I used to pray together. I knew them both quite intimately. Of course it brings back memories. ... I often have thought about what Mrs. Morris and Mrs. Curseen could be going through while a perpetrator is out on the street walking free. I hope now they can find some happiness knowing that that person is no longer out in the world creating harm."

Mary Morris, Morris' widow, said she believes Ivins was responsible for the attacks and will be punished for his actions regardless of his death. "It's either made right on this side of the grave or the other," she said. "Nobody gets by with anything. But we do just have to wait on the Lord."

Richmond retired from a 35-year career with the postal service this year. "I'm getting by," he said. "Seems as though all of us that survived are going through the same physical and mental problems. Physically, a lot of us have this problem where we don't have that much energy. ... I think for the most part a lot of us have problems with short-term memory loss."

The president of the American Postal Workers Union said yesterday that his members have drawn no conclusions from reports that Ivins was to be charged in the attacks.

"We don't take any solace in the death of this individual," said President William Burrus, whose union claims more than 330,000 members, including workers at the Washington mail processing facility now named for Morris and Curseen.

"He has not been tried in a court of law, so we do not conclude, just based upon the news reports, that he was guilty," Burrus said. "The previous individual that the FBI targeted was found to be innocent."

The government had previously targeted Steven J. Hatfill, a former government scientist, as the chief suspect in the anthrax killings, but paid him a $5.82 million settlement in June.

"There is no closure for the postal community with his demise," Burrus said. "It's still an open issue. If the government decides to go forward with a complete review of the evidence and a final decision as to who was responsible, we'll weigh that as it's presented."

Burrus said postal workers had "moved past the events of seven years ago" - but remained concerned about the possibility of hazardous materials being placed in the mail stream.

"We recognize that terror is still a factor in the lives of citizens all over the planet and recognize that we are not 100 percent safe," he said. "We feel safer, but we're not totally safe. ... We recognize that there's still the possibility of a repeat of the events of 2001."

Dena Briscoe, head of Brentwood Exposed, a group that formed in response to issues postal employees' concerns that surfaced after the attacks, said the news brought back painful memories.

"It brings back the old wounds," said Briscoe, president of American Postal Workers Union Local 140, which covers Washington and Southern Maryland. "We're been anticipating a development or a suspect to be apprehended. But never would I have imagined a story like this. Still, the fact is that this particular person who was going to be charged, is deceased. There's no trail, there's no evidence, there's no closure. It just opens the wound even further."

Sun reporter Matthew Hay Brown and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

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