Thursday, May 24, 2018

Ill worker fights Postal Service over toxic mail

MIAMI — Paz Oquendo, a worker at the U.S. Postal Service's Orlando sorting facility, smelled the noxious odor first. It was Feb. 4, 2011, and the foul stench was coming from one of the large mailbags hanging near the package-conveyor belts.

She ran over to Jeffrey A. Lill, the 44-year-old shift supervisor who was monitoring the sorting from a platform and reported the smell.

"I can't breathe," Oquendo told Lill.

Lill headed toward the center of the sorting floor — an area workers call "the belly" — to investigate the odor.

Then he smelled it — a strong chemical stench he couldn't identify. It was coming from a bag wet with a brown viscous substance. Lill looked in the wet sack and saw a broken package with tubes and wires sticking out. He remembers reading the return address with surprise: Yemen. Four months earlier, two bombs from Yemen had been sent through FedEx and UPS, and the U.S. Postal Service had alerted everyone to be on the lookout for packages coming from the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula.

Fearing the package was a hazard, Lill ordered the 40 postal employees out of the belly and immediately opened the large bay doors to ventilate the facility. Lill then moved the bag to a cart and pushed it outside to the hazardous-materials shed. 

After the package was out of the building, Lill radioed his manager to notify her of the suspicious spill. She told him the next on-duty supervisor would finish handling the incident.

Lill's throat burned, and the gas had given him a headache. He called his mother in Rochester, N.Y.

"I want you to know what happened at the post office," Janet Vieau, 64, a real estate agent, remembered him telling her. "It might be on the news." But the incident never made the news. In fact, the Postal Service did not investigate the suspicious package as a security or health threat and did not report it to the Department of Homeland Security, as is the protocol.

Key to treatment

The package, now missing, has created a mystery — and solving that mystery could be the key to saving Lill's life. In the weeks after his exposure to the package, Lill fell devastatingly and inexplicably ill. He suffers from extreme fatigue, tremors and liver and neurological problems consistent with toxic exposure. He has become so sick that he cannot work and now must be cared for his by mother in New York. Lill's doctors say they have no way to treat him without knowing what chemicals were inside the package.

All the while, the Postal Service has refused to investigate, stating through lawyers that the incident never occurred. But the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, in partnership with the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California, Berkeley, uncovered related documents and interviewed two whistle-blowers who confirm what happened on Feb. 4, 2011 — showing that the Postal Service has refused to investigate not only the potential cause for the illness of an employee, but also what could have been a chemical weapon in Florida.

"I think they've just been protecting themselves," said George Chuzi, a Washington, D.C., lawyer, who is helping Lill and his family pressure the Postal Service to investigate. "If we're right, they didn't do something they were supposed to do."

Advancing illness

Today, Lill lives with his mother in Rochester, N.Y., and sleeps up to 16 hours a day in a hospital bed.

By June 2011, Lill's symptoms intensified. He had lost 25 pounds from his trim frame. His liver and appendix were inflamed. He wound up in the hospital with a bleeding ulcer and esophagus.

In his decade of working for the Postal Service, Lill rarely missed a day on the job. But by August 2011, he began what's become a permanent medical leave.

The next month, Lill's gallbladder was removed in an attempt to give him relief from his nausea and stomach pain. By the end of September, Lill's mother realized her son could not take care of himself anymore, and she took him to New York.

Lill's exposure to the suspicious package appears to be the only answer left to his unexplainable health problems. He has seen more than two dozen doctors, including toxicologists and neurologists, and none has been able to diagnose his illness.

"Unless we know exactly what Jeff was exposed to, it's like finding a needle in a haystack," said Richard Aguirre, one of Lill's doctors. "If we knew what the toxin is, we could work back and try to find a cure."

But to this day, the Postal Service denies that Lill was exposed to a potentially toxic package from Yemen.

In a March 9 letter to Chuzi, Postal Service lawyer Isabel M. Robison acknowledged that a harmless spill had occurred on Feb. 2, 2011, but said nothing was spilled on Feb. 4, 2011.

After her shift at the Postal Service facility in Orlando on an April evening, Paz Oquendo sat on a couch in a hotel room on International Drive. Next to her was co-worker Yolanda Ocasio. At the risk of losing their jobs, Oquendo and Ocasio said the Postal Service is lying and covering up the incident. They were there when Lill removed the noxious package from Yemen.

"I don't understand why the post office won't admit that it happened and do something to help Jeff," Oquendo said.

In interviews with FCIR, Oquendo and Ocasio confirmed in detail Lill's recounting of what occurred in Orlando on Feb. 4, 2011. FCIR also obtained a time-stamped email Lill sent to his supervisor, Cynthia Hickman, reporting the exposure to a potentially toxic substance that day. Hickman did not respond to requests for comment.

Lill's doctors say his symptoms are consistent with exposure to a neurotoxin. To identify which neurotoxin, Lill needs the Postal Service to acknowledge the incident, determine whether the package is in the Postal Service's possession or was transferred from the hazmat shed to a third-party contractor's landfill in Kentucky, and then test its contents. 

He's hopeful that if they can find the package, he could be well again.

"I just want my health to be the way it was."

The Florida Center for Investigative Reporting is a nonprofit news organization supported by foundations and individual contributions. For more information, visit fcir.org.

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