Postal worker suspected he had anthrax
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A postal worker who died of inhalation anthrax last month knew he had been exposed to a suspicious letter and tried to tell postal officials, apparently to no avail.
In a 911 call placed just hours before his death October 21, Thomas Morris Jr. requested an ambulance and described symptoms consistent with the inhalation form of the disease.
"My breathing is labored; my chest feels constricted," Morris said. "I am getting air, but I -- to get up and walk and what have you -- it just feels like I'm going to pass out if I stay up too long."
Morris, 55, an employee of the Brentwood processing center in Washington, said a woman working near him found a letter with powder in it October 13.
That was two days before Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, received an anthrax-laced letter processed through the Brentwood facility.
"They never let us know whether this thing was anthrax or not," Morris told the 911 dispatcher. "They never treated the people who were around this particular individual and the supervisor who handled the envelope, so I don't know if it is [anthrax] or not."
He said he had placed calls to postal officials but was never able to find out. A postal inspector, however, told CNN on Wednesday that the letter Morris described had tested negative for anthrax.
Morris' symptoms started October 16, when he began feeling achy and having headaches. Suspicious, Morris went to his doctor October 18 for a throat culture but never received the results.
"I guess there was some hang-up over the weekend. I'm not sure," he said. "The doctor thought that it was just a virus or something."
He finally placed the 911 call on October 21, a Sunday, minutes after he began vomiting.
Morris said postal officials issued a letter describing anthrax symptoms and that his symptoms matched them "almost to a T."
An ambulance was dispatched to take Morris to the hospital, but by that time it was too late. Morris was one of two Brentwood workers who died from inhalation anthrax. The other was Joseph Curseen Jr., 47. Two other employees are hospitalized with the same disease.
The Brentwood facility was closed October 21 and workers began treatment for anthrax, but it was unclear whether those moves came before or after Morris' death.
Treatment began five days earlier for workers in Daschle's office where the letter was opened that contained anthrax.
Responding to a reporter's question Wednesday about the 911 call, Deputy Postmaster General John Nolan said, "I am not aware that he [Morris] saw the Daschle letter ... aware he saw some letter.
"We don't need you all to cause us to second-guess. We do that all the time now," Nolan said. "Of course, knowing what we do now, we'd love to be able to have time back. We'd love to be able to find a way to save those two individuals."
Asked about Morris' reference to a white powder coming from a letter, Postal Service spokeswoman Deborah Willhite would not comment specifically, but she did say officials contacted health officials that week about the "possible contamination and possible threat to the employees at Brentwood."
"We were assured that there was very little chance that anyone at Brentwood would be exposed by anything in the Daschle letter," Willhite said.
Mary Morris, widow of the postal worker, declined to say whether she thought the Postal Service had been slow to respond to her husband's concerns.
"Hindsight is always 20-20. When you look back it could always be different," she told CNN in a telephone interview.
"It's an unfortunate situation. People have been caught off guard. Lives have changed dramatically. For me to focus a lot of negative energy on things that won't change -- it's useless."
U.S. Postal Service
U.S. Department of Health & Human Services
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
U.S. Public Health Service
U.S. Department of Justice
Federal Bureau of Investigation
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