- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 12, 2004

Gwendolyn Wright stacks mail at nearly the same spot where 2-1/2 years ago, two of her co-workers inhaled the anthrax spores that would kill them.

Whoever sent the deadly spores was targeting members of Congress in the weeks after the September 11 attacks.

Instead, the “delivery bar code sorter” machine pinched the envelopes as it separated them for final delivery, spewing the anthrax into the air at the Brentwood Mail Processing and Distribution Center at 900 Brentwood Road NE.

“Nobody knew,” Miss Wright says as she walks through the cavernous 1,700,000-square-foot center. In the background, sorting machines create a steady low-level hum.

There was no odor and nothing to see, only two men who became deathly ill and others who reported flulike symptoms.

Since then, the building has been decontaminated and renovated with some of the $350 million that Congress appropriated for cleanup. It also has been renamed the Joseph Curseen Jr. and Thomas Morris Jr. Mail Processing and Distribution Center, for the two deceased postal workers whom Miss Wright would see during shift changes.

“You just know them by face,” she says. “We were coming in, they were on their way out.”

Once again, truckloads of mail trays are waiting at the North Dock every morning at 7 a.m., when Miss Wright arrives at her job to unload them and sort the “flat trays” into steel bins.

She describes the anthrax incident as the worst and best of times in her nearly 25-year career as a mail handler.

Worst because Mr. Curseen and Mr. Morris died, Miss Wright took antibiotics to protect herself and she was transferred to another postal station in Maryland while her job site was decontaminated.

Best because the rebuilt processing center reopened Dec. 21, reuniting friends and co-workers.

“It was really nice to be back home,” Miss Wright says.

Now she is back to the routine she has known since starting with the U.S. Postal Service as a 23-year-old.

“It’s not a glamorous job, but somebody’s got to do it,” she says.

She spends nearly all of her time on the North Dock unloading mail from trucks and in the adjoining bull pen, sorting flat trays into “cages.” Flat, in Postal Service jargon, means magazines or mail that is shipped in envelopes.

The cages are steel containers organized by mail zone. The mail they contain is shipped first to other stations or areas of the processing center, then to letter carriers before showing up in residents’ homes and offices.

“We don’t really deal with a whole lot of public,” Miss Wright says. “It’s steady, and we have a good group. Everybody pitches in.”

She drives each weekday from her home in Laurel to her job. She punches a time clock, then begins work on the North Dock, where forklifts with beeping horns back in and out of truck beds.

“It’s basically loading and unloading trailers that come in,” Miss Wright says.

After the morning mail is unloaded, she heads to the bullpen, where she sorts trays of mail into the cages.

Other times, she cleans up shipping material of other debris that dislodges from crates.

“I’m just trying to keep everything organized,” she says.

Miss Wright was attracted to the job by the pay, benefits and opportunity for reliable employment.

She had to pass a written test of her math and English skills, followed by a physical test that included lifting a 70-pound mail sack.

Other job candidates guessed that the 5-foot, 1-inch Miss Wright, who weighed 105 pounds at the time, would not be able to lift the sack.

“I was determined,” she says.

She lifted the sack and has been with the Postal Service as a mail handler, safety captain and on-the-job trainer ever since.

“It provided me with a home and helped send my daughter to college,” Miss Wright says. “I don’t have any regrets. If I had to do it again, yes I would.”

In her free time, she teaches catechism at her church and takes her youngest daughter, who is 13 years old, to dance classes. She also recently started taking an adult ballet class.

“The bones don’t move like they used to,” the 48-year-old grandmother says.

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