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Fiery package brings back bad memories at post office; Workers recall incident that killed 2 colleagues

Postal workers who returned to work Saturday said a package that ignited at a government mail facility conjured painful memories of the anthrax attacks that killed two of their colleagues in 2001.

The fiery package found Friday was addressed to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and followed two packages that ignited Thursday in Maryland state government mailrooms. It halted government mail until bomb-sniffing dogs could sweep the D.C. facility.

Mail processing resumed Saturday morning after a meeting with workers, the local postmaster and the workers' union.

Postal workers union President Dena Briscoe said that the meeting was helpful but that the fiery package worried many employees. She said most of the postal workers also were sorting D.C. mail back in 2001, when letters containing anthrax were sent to lawmakers and news organizations as the nation was still reeling from the 9/1 1 attacks.

"One of the ladies was crying because these episodes are bringing those feelings and those emotions and those memories back," Briscoe said. "We want them to feel safe and secure and be able to trust management to respond properly if this were to happen again."

Postal officials installed new sensors and other safety equipment in the wake of the anthrax mailings.

When the popping and smoking package was discovered Friday, postal service managers failed to follow proper safety procedures, Briscoe said.

The evacuation process was "very sloppy," she said, because workers in the back of the building had no idea they were supposed to evacuate. Managers should have made an announcement on the public address system, she said.

Helen Lewis, a mail processing clerk at the D.C. facility, said co-workers told her management had trouble deciding whether to evacuate the building and wanted to wait for postal inspectors or police to decide. A worker ended up flagging down a police car, and workers said police evacuated the building.

"That's not good enough," she said. "This is not a suspicious package. This is a package that went off."

People in the back of the building didn't know about the ignited package until police arrived, Lewis said.

"We have two employees who (died)" because of anthrax, she said, adding that workers need information in an emergency to keep themselves safe. "Something is wrong with that picture right there. We must do better."

Workers said they should have been given mandatory talks on safety procedures early Friday because the Maryland packages had been sent through the U.S. mail system.

The area the package ignited in was properly isolated, Briscoe said, and the emergency response improved as more agencies got involved.

Washington Postmaster Gerald Roane met with about 40 workers early Saturday and acknowledged some things could have been handled better, Briscoe said.

"Employees let him know that this brings them back to the anthrax experience" when workers felt their safety wasn't a priority, Briscoe said. "Safety needs to be much more effective in the Postal Service."

Workers at the facility where two workers died had sued the Postal Service for failing to protect them, but a judge ruled that the service is immune from lawsuits.

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