Dealing With the Unimaginable

On September 11, 2001, terrorists attacked the United States, killing thousands. The Postal Service helped keep the lines of communication open despite severe restrictions on commercial air operations during this tragic time.

As the Postal Service dealt with these challenges, a photo editor in Boca Raton, Florida, died from inhalation anthrax on October 5, 2001, the first known case in the United States since 1976. A week later, a media employee in New York City was diagnosed with cutaneous anthrax after opening a letter addressed to an NBC anchorman. On October 15, 2001, a letter postmarked in Trenton, New Jersey, was delivered to the Capitol Hill office of a U.S. Senator. The letter claimed to contain anthrax, and this proved to be true. The Postal Service then went to work with other agencies to deal with bioterrorism.

The Postal Service announced the formation of a mail security task force, headed by the Chief Postal Inspector; authorized its employees to wear protective gear; and considered ways to sanitize mail, including irradiating it with electron beams. The Postal Service also notified people at every mailing address about how to identify and handle suspicious letters and packages.

On October 21, 2001, Joseph P. Curseen, Jr., an employee at the Brentwood postal facility in Washington, D.C., that handled mail for Capitol Hill, was diagnosed with inhalation anthrax. That night, another employee, Thomas L. Morris, Jr., died from inhalation anthrax. The next morning, Curseen also died.

Postmaster General John E. Potter announced the sad news, then stated:


800,000 Postal Service employees are using everything they’ve learned, doing everything humanly possible, to keep the mail safe and keep it moving. And we’re determined not to let terrorists stop us.51


By October 27, anthrax spores had been detected in other locations. All told, at least five deaths and several cases of anthrax poisoning are known.

In 2004, after multiple tests, the Postal Service began installing biohazard detection equipment to protect postal employees, customers, and the mail, and continues to work to strengthen the security of the mail.