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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 shift supervisor who was monitoring the sorting from a platform, and reported the smell.
About This Story
This story is a result of a collaboration that included the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting; News21, a part of the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California-Berkeley; and WUSF 89.7 News.
Irondequoit mom, family, helped bring Lill’s story to light (Rochester Democrat and Chronicle)
“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 hazmat 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 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, USPS 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.
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, USPS has refused to investigate, stating through lawyers that the incident never occurred. But the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, in partnership with the News21 project of the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California-Berkeley, uncovered related documents and interviewed two whistleblowers who confirm what happened on Feb. 4, 2011 — showing that USPS 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 USPS to investigate. “If we’re right, they didn’t do something they were supposed to do.”
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Today, Lill, 44, lives with his mother in Rochester, N.Y. In a bedroom painted blue, with lights off and curtains drawn, Lill sleeps up to 16 hours a day in a hospital bed.
“He was so vital, so energetic and so personable,” said Vieau, his mother. “He would play basketball and the drums.”
But now Lill is bedridden. “He can watch a DVD, and that’s about it,” Vieau said.
Within two weeks of the Feb. 4, 2011, incident, Lill came down with flu symptoms. He also had insomnia and was disoriented. “It would go away, but each time it came back, it would come back longer,” Lill said, lying in bed with thick curtains blocking out a sunny afternoon in late March — more than a year after the incident.
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. The next month, Lill sat in the dark in his home in Lady Lake, Fla., unable to get out of his recliner and spend time with the two teenagers under his care: his own 17-year-old son and the son of a friend under his guardianship. Lill is divorced.
In his decade of working for USPS, 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. Days after the procedure, his symptoms returned. Doctors couldn’t explain why. By the end of September, Lill’s mother realized her son could not take care of himself anymore, and she brought him to New York.
Vieau now works in a home office next to Lill’s bedroom, constantly listening in case he is stricken with tremors. “I’ll hear things shaking,” she said. “I have to comfort him, to hold him.”
Lill’s exposure to the suspicious package appears to be the only answer left to his unexplainable health problems. He’s 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, USPS denies that Lill was exposed to a potentially toxic package from Yemen.
In a March 9 letter to Chuzi, USPS lawyer Isabel M. Robison acknowledged that a harmless spill had occurred on Feb. 2, 2011, but said nothing was spilled on Feb. 4, 2011. She wrote: “A review of Postal Service records and multiple inquiries at both the Area and District levels has confirmed — as we previously indicated — that there was no hazardous spill on February 4, 2011 at the Orlando MP Annex.”
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After her shift at the USPS facility in Orlando on an April evening, Paz Oquendo sat on a couch in a hotel room on International Drive. Next to her was coworker Yolanda Ocasio. At the risk of losing their jobs, Oquendo and Ocasio said USPS 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.)
Why, despite paper records and two whistleblowers’ accounts, USPS refuses to investigate the incident is something of a whodunit. But it’s also a national security concern, demonstrating how USPS may not have investigated a potential terrorist attack in Florida.
In October 2010, four months before Lill came in contact with the package, authorities intercepted two packages from Yemen with bomb materials hidden inside printer ink cartridges. One was discovered in Britain aboard a UPS cargo plane and the other was found in a FedEx warehouse in Dubai. USPS briefly stopped accepting mail from the country. Yemeni police then arrested a suspect in the case, and deliveries from Yemen to the United States resumed.
But USPS being on the front lines of counterterrorism is nothing new. Since the 2001 anthrax attacks — during which anthrax-laced letters were mailed to news media and two U.S. Senators, killing five and infecting 17 others — USPS has been on alert for the next attack.
That’s why U.S. Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle, R-N.Y., wants answers about what happened in Orlando on Feb. 4, 2011. Buerkle, whose district includes Lill’s new residence in Rochester, has pressured USPS to investigate what she views as a credible report of a possible chemical weapon.
“We are not satisfied with the level of responsiveness from the Postal Service,” said Timothy Drumm, Buerkle’s chief of staff. “We want to see if the appropriate steps were taken by the Post Office, to see if the employees are safe. But since they say the incident did not happen, we can’t even get that far.”
USPS officials in Washington, D.C., and Florida declined to comment on Buerkle’s call for an inquiry and on the two whistleblowers who have come forward.
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When Lill is awake and lucid, he expresses frustration that his employer won’t acknowledge the incident that may have made him so ill.
Squeezing his eyes shut, his hand trembling, Lill admitted he didn’t follow protocol for handling a spill. Rushing to protect fellow employees, Lill did not follow USPS rules that required him to put on a protective suit before handling the parcel. Because of that, he said, liquid from the package touched his skin. It was brown, syrupy and difficult to wash off.
“I wanted to make sure they got out because one employee had gotten a headache and I got mine pretty quickly,” Lill said. “If I had followed the rules, I guess we would have had a lot more people exposed to it.”
Lill has good and bad days. During the bad ones, he struggles to distinguish reality from dream.
“I’ve heard him speaking Spanish in his room, to nobody,” Vieau said, referring to how her son learned Spanish while working at USPS. “Sometimes he’ll laugh and smile and gesture. But he’s not there.”
Lill’s doctors say his symptoms are consistent with exposure to a neurotoxin. To identify which neurotoxin, Lill needs USPS to acknowledge the incident, determine whether the package is in USPS’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,” Lill said.