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New Jersey Postal Officials Address Anthrax Scare

Aired October 15, 2001 - 13:39   ET


AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: The postmaster in Trenton, New Jersey is speaking now.

TONY ESPOSITO, POSTAL INSPECTOR: ... who is the mayor of Hamilton Township. I have a brief statement to make. And then we will entertain a few questions.

The Postal Inspection Service, along with the FBI, is conducting a joint investigation in order to determine who was responsible for mailing the letter postmarked September 18, 2001, Trenton, New Jersey. We are giving this matter our highest degree of investigative attention. We are in the process of providing updated guidelines to all postal employees, designed to assist them with the proper procedures to be followed in identifying and handling suspicious articles of mail.

We have over 800,000 employees working from over 38,000 facilities, delivering approximately 680 million pieces of mail every day to over 130 million households. Our highest priority is to provide a safe and secure workplace for all of our customers and employees. Since September 11, 2001, the postal service has processed over 20 billion pieces of mail. To date, we have one confirmed report of an article of U.S. mail containing the anthrax virus.

We are asking that all our employees remain calm and to be cautious during these difficult times. We are also asking that our customers remain calm, and to please use return addresses in all of their correspondence. We have been advised by the New Jersey State Department of Health and Senior Services that the chances of someone contracting the anthrax virus from merely handling the outside wrapper of an article of U.S. mail is extremely remote and possibly nonexistent. In addition, the assistant commissioner of health has advised us there is no evidence of environmental exposure at this facility.

Now, we will take just a few of your questions, because, as you can imagine, we are in the middle of an investigation.

QUESTION: Sir, have you been contacted by the FBI regarding a letter to Senator Daschle that apparently contained a positive test of anthrax?

ESPOSITO: We have not been notified at this particular facility. However, we do have a command center located in Washington, D.C. And I'm sure they have been notified.

QUESTION: How does that change what you do and what you need to do if a second letter has been identified as being postmarked through this facility?

ESPOSITO: Well, once we have a confirmed report, we will evaluate the results of that and take extra precautionary measures to insure, again, the safety of all of our employees.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) figured out where this original letter came from, which specific post office within your jurisdiction?

ESPOSITO: We are currently conducting an investigation with the FBI to determine exactly that.

QUESTION: If you do find out that, sir, will you share that with us?

QUESTION: You have 46 feeders here. Isn't that difficult in that you have 46 feeders here? Can you speak to that challenge that faces you?

ESPOSITO: Yes. The article of mail that was postmarked here in Trenton, New Jersey on September 18, along with approximately 246,000 other articles of mail, was brought here from any one of possibly 46 other post offices and or stations or branches.

QUESTION: Do you think you will be able to find out where that letter was from, sir?

QUESTION: Can I have a follow-up? Does that present with you a significant difficulty or challenge in the fact that this takes mail from all over the place?

ESPOSITO: We would not care to speculate at this time. We are confident that we will be able to identify the location from where that was mailed, but we do not want to compromise the integrity of the investigation.

QUESTION: It was said that the mail -- the original letter underwent testing for fingerprints, other DNA evidence. Do you have any comments on results of those tests?

ESPOSITO: I am not going to comment on any tests done that were done on the particular letter.

QUESTION: Were the tests done and there are results, or...

ESPOSITO: I am not going to comment on that.

QUESTION: Have any employees been tested at this facility?

ESPOSITO: At this point, we have two employees that reported to us that they had symptoms that could be construed as possibly being related to the anthrax virus. There is no confirmed reports of that. It could be some other ailment. But just to proceed cautiously, we have allowed them to be tested. And we are providing them the best medical assistance we can at this point in time.

QUESTION: Where did they work?

ESPOSITO: They worked here at this facility.


QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) medical problems, when did they first come down with the alleged problems?

ESPOSITO: There was a carrier who worked at the Trenton facility, actually on the 17th and the 19th, who reported to her doctor that she had some ailments. I believe she was treated within seven to 10 days of that particular visit. And, at this point, we're still waiting for final results. The other individual was a...


ESPOSITO: Joe, you want to stand in front of here?

JOE SAUTELLO, TRENTON AREA POSTMASTER: The other employee was a maintenance employee that works at the facility.



ESPOSITO: Well, again, symptoms that most people -- and they are no different than any others -- there are common flu-like symptoms. There is a headache. There is a mild-grade fever. Those are the sort of symptoms that they are reporting to us. But, nevertheless, we are giving this our highest level of attention.

QUESTION: Did any of them have skin lesions?

ESPOSITO: I'm not aware if that's the case.

QUESTION: What about the employees at the 46 other postal offices? Are you encouraging them to be tested?

ESPOSITO: We are encouraging all postal employees at all facilities to follow the guidelines that we have provided, and that if anyone has reason to believe that they handled a suspicious article that may have leaked a chemical or biological item, to report that directly to us. And we're getting them health services provided.


ESPOSITO: Every postal employee in every postal facility is in the process of being issued these guidelines over the next couple of days.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) What are the guidelines?

ESPOSITO: I will make those available to you at the end of


QUESTION: Has you noticed whether it is business as usual here or whether there has been any drop-off? What kind of volume are you handling here on a day-to-day basis?

SAUTELLO: It's been business as usual. The employees have all reported to work. They have good attitudes. And, you know, we're going on. And we're going to do the job that we were doing prior to this and before this all started.


QUESTION: ... locate the origin of the letter? And if you do find the origin, will you share that with the public?

ESPOSITO: Well, we are working together with the FBI. But the postal inspection service has a long, proud and successful tradition of protecting the American public from those criminals who would use the U.S. mails to either defraud or otherwise endanger the American public. We have a 98 percent conviction rate on all of our cases that go to trial, so we are very confident we'll be able to handle this matter.


QUESTION: Will you share that with the public once you find that out, sir?


QUESTION: Is that true?

ESPOSITO: We have heard reports that the outside of the particular letter that was processed here on September 18, after having been cultured, did test negative for the anthrax virus.


QUESTION: They also said that this is like finding a needle in a haystack, when you go back to those 46 offices, plus all of the mailboxes that feed into there. Can you talk a little more about how you are going about this? I know you have talked about surveillance video. But how do you boil down some person dropping a letter in a mailbox? How do you track that back?

ESPOSITO: Well, we want to be careful not to compromise the integrity of the investigation, but it is safe to say that through the automated equipment that's available at the Trenton P&DC, we can pretty much pinpoint when the item was handled at our postmarking equipment and, from that point, determine when it was brought into the facility.

QUESTION: There's been no environmental testing in here, from what I understand. So how do you know the building is clean?

ESPOSITO: We have been advised, again, by the New Jersey State Department of Health and Senior Services that it is not necessary to do that. There has been no leakages. There's been no breaks in any of the letters. And there's been no fumes.


QUESTION: This new Daschle development, how is that now going to affect you guys here, if any?

ESPOSITO: Well, obviously, as things continue to unfold and develop, we will be guided on those developments.

QUESTIONS: In these 46 places that you mentioned, geographically, where are they in New Jersey and how many counties do they serve?

SAUTELLO: Well, the NE (ph) office -- I'm sorry. The NE that starts with the 085 or 086 zip codes.


SAUTELLO: They are in the city of Trenton.


SAUTELLO: I don't have that number, but we could provide you with it.

QUESTION: Would it be in the hundreds or thousands?

SAUTELLO: Yes, it would be in the hundreds. It would be over 100.


QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) tell you what town it was dropped in, or no?

SAUTELLO: I can't really comment on that.

QUESTION: How many pieces of mail do you process here each day?

SAUTELLO: Each day, anywhere from 400,000 to 600,000 pieces are canceled a night.

QUESTION: I read that was 200-some-thousand (OFF-MIKE) September 18.

SAUTELLO: I don't know where they got that information.


SAUTELLO: Oh, OK. That's actual pieces that are canceled. That's maybe the number that they were quoting.

QUESTION: That's an average, sir?

SAUTELLO: That's an average, yes.

QUESTION: Two hundred and forty-six thousand, Trenton postmarks a day?


QUESTION: Are you offering counseling or medical care? I read one report in one of the papers. Or what are you offering to the employees who may be upset about what's happened?

SAUTELLO: Absolutely.

We have counselors. We have some nurses on call. We have a doctor that's available to them. Plus, we had the health department here earlier this morning to educate them a little bit and educate them on what their concerns should be and what they should be looking for and things like that.

BROWN: The postal inspector and the postmaster in Trenton, New Jersey talking about what precautions are being taken to -- primarily, to protect postal workers from exposure to anthrax.

He talked about -- Mr. Esposito, the postal inspector -- talked about one confirmed anthrax letter having come through the Trenton system. There are 46 individual post offices in the Trenton area. They all feed into that one central location, Hamilton County; 200- plus-thousand pieces get canceled a day. So you are talking about a lot of mail coming into this one facility.

It is not clear which of the 46 post offices around Trenton. This one confirmed letter, that's the NBC letter. There is a second letter that is postmarked Trenton. That's the letter that was received on Friday in the office of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. That was opened today. And the early tests -- they have done two field tests on that -- and those early tests show positive for anthrax. But they need to run at least one more test before they say that is a confirmed case. But that, too, came through anthrax.

Mr. Esposito said two employees are showing symptoms. And we are very careful with this. This, in fact, could be the flu. It's hard to know. In any case, they are being checked and treated. One was a mail carrier, the other a maintenance employee who may have come into contact with the suspicious letter or letters.

Bill Delaney, our Boston bureau chief, is in Brookline, Massachusetts, suburban Boston. He has been looking at how mail service has been changed, or how security has been altered in the wake of the anthrax -- Bill.

BILL DELANEY, CNN BOSTON BUREAU CHIEF: Well, Aaron, you know, since September 11, every post office in the country has been on high alert.

And if you ask the postal system what that means, they say, well, procedures haven't really changed. We are just asking everyone to be more vigilant. Now, in the last couple of days, with all this talk of anthrax, we have seen a number of memos put out throughout the postal system for employees to read. I have one in my hand here. To give you an idea of what postal employees are getting, Aaron: management instruction, emergency response to mail allegedly containing anthrax.

Now, we talked to postal employees here in Brookline, Massachusetts this morning. At least here, they all seemed very relaxed. We have made some phone calls around the country. And, in general, postal employees seem pretty relaxed about all this. There has been some agitation in some quarters to get protective suits for postal employees. But, as far as we can tell, that hasn't gone very far -- employees being told: If you find a substance that is suspicious, isolate where it came from. Call a supervisor. And wash your hands with soap and water.

But, as I say, in general, postal employees going about their business -- many wear gloves anyway.

Now, as for the general public, Aaron, there have been some guidelines put out by the U.S. postal system for people, like all of us, who get mail and packages routinely every day. In this new world, here is some advice: the U.S. postal system urging, if you receive something unexpected or from someone you don't know, be concerned about it; receiving something addressed to someone where you work who no longer works there, be concerned about it.

If there is no return address, that's considered a tip-off as something suspicious. Be wary of packages of unusual weight or shape. Be cautious about packages marked personal or confidential if there doesn't seem any other reason for them to be. Strange odors, stains, protruding wires -- common sense there -- are a tip-off -- and a city or state in the postmark that doesn't match the return address, something to look for.

And what the postal system urges the general public as how to deal with a suspicious package is very much what they are telling to postal employees. Don't open the package. Isolate it. Get away from it. Evacuate the area if necessary and alert police authorities and postal inspectors -- the U.S. postal system walking a very fine balance here, very fine line, Aaron. As in so much of our ordinary lives in America right now, they don't want to alert people -- they don't want upset people.

They don't want to alarm people; 208 billion pieces of mail pass through the U.S. postal system every year. A tiny fraction will be dangerous -- walking a fine line between not alarming the public and telling the public to pay attention, to be a bit more cautious than usual -- back to you, Aaron.

BROWN: Well, I feel like we have been living on that fine line now for a while.

It is hard it imagine that people are not upset or nervous about this. Somebody, somebodies out there, are sending some number of letters -- we have no idea how many -- that have anthrax in them. And try though people might to just assume that this is just another day at the office, it is not. It is not another day at the office here. It is not another day at the office at the post office, certainly. And, yes, the odds are small, and everybody needs to sort of keep that perspective. But, obviously, people everywhere are enormously concerned about this.

Bill, at that, just one quick question on this: It's my impression, at least, that most of the mail handling is, in fact, automated these days, that only at the beginning and the end of the process do people actually get their hands on it. Is that roughly correct?

DELANEY: Well, I don't know if that is roughly correct, Aaron.

We are told that every piece of mail that comes into a typical post office, like this one here in Brookline, Massachusetts, is handled by no less than a half-a-dozen postal many employees. And, as we have seen in the past couple of days, in the Boston area, for example, we had two post offices evacuated because powders showed up. Somebody touched an envelope and a powder came out of the envelope. In both cases, it turned out to not amount to much.

There was one case out in the Midwest where powder came out of an envelope. The building was evacuated. It turned out to be dry pudding someone was being sent as a present. So, yes, a lot of it is automated, but a lot of it also is by hand. And that's why we keep hearing these reports of powders that come out of envelopes and out of packages -- Aaron.

BROWN: Bill, thanks -- Bill Delaney, our Boston bureau chief, in Brookline.

Kate Snow, one of our congressional correspondents, is reporting that the public tours of the U.S. Capitol Building have been halted for now. You heard Senator Daschle, actually, talk about this, saying he hoped that wouldn't happen, that we need to keep these buildings open to the public.

At least for now -- we assume for security reasons -- I think that is fair to assume -- the Capitol tours have been closed, as security in Washington is very intense now.




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