POSTAL inspectors investigate dying worker's 911 call about a tainted letter

Thursday, November 8th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The dying words of a Washington postal worker are prompting inspectors to probe whether a central post office handled a letter containing anthrax that, so far, investigators had not known existed.

Thomas Morris Jr. told 911 operators hours before he died of inhaled anthrax that he thought he had the disease _ despite a doctor's dismissal _ and recalled a co-worker handling a powder-containing letter a week earlier.

``My breathing is very, very labored,'' Morris said on the 911 tape. ``I don't know if I have been, but I suspect that I might have been exposed to anthrax.''

Morris, 55, was one of two Washington postal workers who died of inhaled anthrax last month, setting off a massive investigation that has closed contaminated post offices and put thousands of workers on protective antibiotics.

Both men worked at the Brentwood mail processing facility, which processed the anthrax-tainted letter Senate Majority Leader Thomas Daschle, D-S.D., had received a week before Morris' 911 call.

Daschle's letter was sealed with tape. Until the Washington postal deaths, medical authorities hadn't thought that enough anthrax could escape a sealed letter to harm _ but nor did they have, until now, real reason to suspect another letter had triggered the Brentwood illnesses.

During his 911 call, Morris was calm but breathing laboriously as he described a co-worker finding an envelope containing powder. He said he hadn't handled the envelope but had been nearby.

``I couldn't even find out if the stuff was or it wasn't'' anthrax, he said. ``I was told that it wasn't, but I have a tendency not to believe these people.''

``We don't know for certain what he is talking about,'' said Deborah Willhite, a Postal Service senior vice president.

Inspectors began interviewing Morris' co-workers Wednesday to try to reconstruct the event. That is difficult because they don't have access to work records inside Brentwood, which is sealed awaiting decontamination.

``I'm not downplaying what Mr. Morris experienced because we don't know for sure, but it could or could not be a significant lead,'' Willhite said, noting that post offices routinely handle damaged mail containing sugar or other innocuous substances. ``We just simply won't know until we can reconstruct what went on at that point in time.''

Three days before his death, Morris went to a doctor, who dismissed the anthrax worry.

``The symptoms that I have had are what was described to me in a letter that they put out, almost to a tee,'' Morris told 911 operators, who called for an ambulance after he described the envelope incident. ``The doctor thought that it was just a virus or something so we went with that and I was taking Tylenol for the achiness. Except the shortness of breath now, I don't know, that's consistent with the anthrax.''

Today, no doctor in America would assume a postal worker who claimed to have had a possible anthrax exposure was suffering benign symptoms, said Dr. Ivan Walks, Washington's health director. But at the time Morris fell ill, officials had no reason to be so suspicious.

``To have that tape ... lets us all know just how much different the world would be if we had known three weeks ago what we know now,'' Walks said. ``Anyone looking at that transcript and using what we know now to judge either his doctor or his co-workers is being unfair.''