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U.S. News
Andrew Richards: Postal inspector

Wednesday, September 11, 2002

By Lori Shontz, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

You can bet that U.S. Postal Inspector Andrew Richards, a team leader for the major crimes division in Western Pennsylvania, scrutinizes everything that arrives in his personal mailbox.

"I've arrested a lot of people," he said. "I really look at my mail pretty closely."

But is he looking any closer than he did before 9/11, when in the weeks after the attacks public officials began receiving envelopes containing anthrax and five people died after handling mail that came in contact with the anthrax-filled envelopes?

No.

When it comes to dangerous mail, "there's no magic bullet," Richards said. "Just a reasonable amount of diligence when you're taking something into the house."

That's not to say that the threat of anthrax hasn't caused changes.

As soon as the first reports of anthrax surfaced, the 35 local postal inspectors knew what to expect.

Phone calls on top of phone calls.

They fielded hundreds in the first six weeks or so, most from people who suddenly noticed white powder on their envelopes. In almost every instance, the powder was actually paper filings that were created when papers rubbed against each other, and had actually been there all along.

"People were convinced their Sears bills were contaminated," Richards said. "We knew exactly what it was they were looking at."

No anthrax was ever found in Western Pennsylvania, although there were two incidents of envelopes with white powder.

An inmate scraped the powdered sugar off a doughnut, combined it with some talcum powder and sent it with a threatening note to a Harrisburg probation office, triggering an evacuation. A woman sent a similar mixture to her husband at work, and when a mailroom employee opened it, the business was evacuated.

"She said it was just a joke," a still disbelieving Richards said.

The postal inspectors also tried to stay a step ahead of the threat. They made a list of local businesses they considered potential targets, such as Bayer Corp., which manufactures Cipro, the antibiotic used to treat anthrax. They then approached those businesses, offering to conduct seminars on mailroom security.

Security programs weren't anything new. But in the past, both for businesses and for the postal service itself, inspectors taught people about mail bombs, not chemicals.

Even today, Richards can't go out for dinner or to the store without fielding questions from people wanting to know the best way to protect themselves from anthrax. His answer is standard --Don't panic, and above all, don't run off to be with your friends or family. If you do that, you contaminate your car, your house, your relatives and anyone else you come in contact with.

Containment is the key, so stay put.

Today, nearly a year after the anthrax mailings, the concerned phone calls have returned to normal levels, but Richards and the postal inspectors are still on alert.

"I think the public went back to recognizing that an awful lot can happen to us," Richards said. "Anthrax is now one of those things that occurred in our history. It could occur again, but now we're a little smarter about it.

"It may not be so much, 'Will anthrax happen again?' It could be, 'What else will happen?' "

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