WASHINGTON – James Harper will never forget watching a friend die.
Harper and Joseph Curseen operated the same sorting machine two years ago at Brentwood, the giant postal facility in Northeast Washington, D.C., when Curseen began to get sick, something that Harper said had never happened before.
Within days, Curseen and another Brentwood postal worker, Thomas Morris, were dead from exposure to anthrax that had been sent through the mail. The Brentwood processing center was eventually sealed and decontaminated, and when it reopens, it will be named after Curseen and Morris.
But Curseen and Morris were not the only victims of the still-unsolved anthrax attacks, say Harper and other postal workers, who filed a $100 million class-action lawsuit Wednesday against the U.S. Postal Service and the manager of the Brentwood station.
The suit, which was filed in the federal district court in Washington, alleges that top postal officials knew that Brentwood was contaminated by anthrax, but misled workers. The group believes at least 11 other deaths at Brentwood could be linked to anthrax, said Thomas Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, which launched the suit on the employees’ behalf.
“Mr. Morris and Mr. Curseen are basically the tip of the iceberg,” said Terrell Worrell, another former Brentwood employee.
Postal Service officials could not be reached Wednesday, but in other published reports a spokesman declined comment on the pending litigation.
The suit claims that congressional workers who were exposed to anthrax-tainted letters were treated more quickly. It also charges that the Postal Service kept Brentwood open because that facility was so profitable, noting that affected post offices in New Jersey and Florida were closed immediately.
Dena Briscoe spent 15 of her 23 years in the Postal Service at Brentwood. After the anthrax episode, the Clinton woman said she was diagnosed with bronchitis, which she had never had before. Briscoe, 43, said she has chest pains and that running is painful.
She was off work for two months after the anthrax attacks. When she returned to work at a postal facility in Hyattsville, she said the atmosphere was “cold,” which led her to help form a group, Brentwood Exposed, with other former employees.
For Harper, 42, the past two years have been hard. He was transferred to the Suburban Maryland postal facility in Gaithersburg, a 100-mile round-trip from his home in Accokeek. He says he has suffered stomach ailments, fatigue and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Harper believes that the antibiotic, Cipro, that Brentwood workers received from the D.C. mayor’s office made him sick.
Brentwood was a family affair for Harper: His mother worked 100 feet away from him, and his sister worked upstairs in marketing.
“That was our livelihood,” he said. “What they did to us could have wiped out our whole family.”
Harper does not know if he will end up back at the new facility named after his friend.
“Joe was my friend. I loved him dearly. I truly miss him,” he said. “I’ll put it in God’s hands.”