The Dead Letter Bin by Mort Laitner
It’s Thursday mid-afternoon, the day before New Year’s Eve. The Miami Dade County Health Department is winding down. Many employees are already on leave. Others are fleeing work a little early to get a jump on the extended holiday weekend. At the Administrator’s Office, folks are in a festive mood – only a few hours to go ‘til quitten’ time. The day has been routine – no problems, no crises. Ahhh.
Like every other work day, the postal worker has just arrived with the afternoon’s mail. The holiday season has made today’s collection of envelopes and small packages lighter than usual. It’s an added bonus for the secretary who begins to sort today’s delivery. She smiles. Other than the lighter than usual mood and the lighter than usual mail delivery – good things both – it has been an otherwise exceptionally quiet, blissfully uneventful day.
One package stands out among the mail. It is large but not exceedingly so – about 14 inches to a side. But it is odd. It has no mailing label. A secretary picks up and inspects the rather sloppy writing slanting across one side. Something turns over ominously inside. Her brow furrows as she reads. She tenses suddenly and quickly puts the package down. The contented smile is gone, replaced by a very troubled frown. She picks up her phone and punches buttons rapidly. She is getting that sinking feeling that the day’s ordinariness and quiet is about to be shattered.
Miles away, in his office, the Health Department legal team gathers around a speaker phone. The attorney grabs a pen and legal pad and starts to scribble furiously. A mysterious parcel has arrived by mail at the Administrator’s Office. The box bears no mailing label, no stamps and no postmark. The Health Department’s name and address have been scribbled directly on the cardboard in black magic marker. The box has no return address and something hefty and solid inside jostles around when the package is moved. The secretary explains that another inscription has been scrawled in red magic marker beneath the Health Department’s name and address. The attorney stops writing and blinks as she reads aloud: “Found loose in the Mails. CREMATED REMAINS.”
Now it’s the attorney’s turn to wear the troubled frown. And like the secretary, he is dialing as fast as he can. Police and postal authorities are alerted and appropriate Agency personnel advised. Employees are ordered to evacuate the Administrator’s Office. Police summon a HAZMAT team, who test the parcel for radiological and chemical contamination – both negative. The parcel is whisked away to the State Laboratory for further testing for infective agents. 1 2
An hour later, the evacuated personnel are discussing the matter with police outside the Administrator’s now-abandoned offices. Employees teem around – some with anxious faces. Everyone wants to help, but there is very little to be done but wait. And everyone is waiting for the laboratory results. When they arrive, a collective sigh of relief seems to escape from all concerned. All is deemed well. The box’s contents are just what the box’s handwritten inscription claimed them to be – a smaller box containing cremated remains.
Information contained in the box allows Health Department employees to Google-track the package back to South Carolina, where the deceased had lived. Inquiries to a South Carolina cremation society reveal that the deceased’s remains had been shipped to a New York funeral home. Further inquiries revealed that, from New York, the remains had been shipped again to the bereaved family in New Jersey. It was during this last and final leg of the trip to return the deceased to his family that the remains were lost. It was a simple matter of an envelope containing the death certificate and affixed to the box coming loose. Apparently, when the United States Postal Service investigated the now-unidentifiable package, the Miami-Dade County Health Department’s name and address had been found inside on an advertisement listed as an important web link. A postal worker must have decided that the Health Department would be better suited to handle the situation, and simply forwarded the parcel – cremated remains and all – to MDCHD.
When the all-clear signal was given, police allow the area to be reopened and employees to return to their offices to pick up their personal things, turn off computers and close up for the weekend. Despite the holiday weekend having begun, the mood in the Administrator’s Office could no longer be described as festive. Tired, relieved and thankful would be better descriptions.
This may sound like an upcoming episode of CSI Miami. But this was a real life incident that occurred on December 30, 2004, at the Miami-Dade County Health Department. And it poses a serious question: What would you do, as an employee of the Department of Health, if such a parcel arrived at your desk?
Health Departments have protocols for suspicious packages. Remember the action you must take if a suspect parcel arrives: 1) Do not open or even touch the package if it can be helped; 2) Evacuate the area; 3) Immediately contact law enforcement and postal authorities; and 4) Contact your county health department’s safety officer.
Not long ago, the anthrax deaths in Palm Beach County brought to bear the importance of proper screening and securing of the U.S. Mail. This incident underscores that even in the absence of an imminent threat from contaminated mail, Health Department employees must remain vigilant in their observance of proper procedures to identify and secure suspect mail.
The Happy Ending: After talking to the South Carolina cremation society and the New York funeral home, the Health Department returned the cremated remains to the son of the deceased.