By Erin Duffy
In ceremonies that celebrated courage and duty during the post office's darkest days, officials and postal employees yesterday marked the anniversary of the anthrax attacks that contaminated the Route 130 plant and sickened five workers 10 years ago.
Union leaders and postal officials reminisced not only about the anxiety that gripped workers in the wake of the 2001 bioterrorism attack, but also the spirit of unity that helped rebuild the postal facility as well as trust in America's mail system.
"Those were scary times for all of us, but we stuck together and that's what really brought us out of this, because we stayed united and we fought everything that got in our way and that's why we're here today," said Bill Lewis, president of the American Postal Workers Union local.
A few of the nearly 100 postal employees who attended the afternoon ceremony wore "I survived anthrax" T-shirts. Among them were Terri Heller and Richard Morgano, two of the workers sickened by anthrax.
"It's hard to believe it's been 10 years," said Heller, a West Trenton mail carrier who still works for the postal service.
Morgano is a maintenance mechanic who returned to work at the Hamilton facility after an absence of more than eight years.
He said he couldn't stay away from yesterday's commemoration.
"A lot of people put in a lot of blood, sweat and tears to get this building back together," he said.
Just days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, at least four anthrax-laced letters sent through the mail were processed through the Hamilton mail distribution center.
"Frankly, it felt like the other shoe had dropped," said U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-Robbinsville), who lobbied for greater anthrax testing and funds to decontaminate the facility. "America was under another attack and we were ground zero, right here in Hamilton Township."
By Oct. 18, 2001, the Route 130 facility was closed after anthrax spores were found inside and a handful of workers were confirmed to have cases of both inhalational and skin anthrax.
Nearly 1,000 workers were treated for potential exposure, and the Hamilton facility remained closed for nearly five years, subject to dozens of tests and a $65 million cleanup.
Postal service officials yesterday stressed the steps the post office has taken since the attacks, including the installation of hundreds of biohazard detection systems.
"Anthrax reminds us it only takes one piece of mail to do a lot of harm," said Amgel Cartagena, a homeland security coordinator. "We must remain vigilant."