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Post Office Supervisor Says Suspicious Spill Ruined His Health

One year ago, a postal worker in Orlando says he handled a suspicious package from Yemen -- and says it made him seriously ill. The Postal Service denies the incident ever took place.

The Florida Center for Investigative Reporting and the Investigative Reporting Program at U.C. Berkeley worked with WUSF's Steve Newborn to try to uncover what really happened.

Jeff Lill lies on a hospital bed in his mother's home just north of Rochester, N.Y. He's wrapped in a blanket, and his hands are shaking. His mom, Janet Vieau, brings him some hot tea and asks if she should reheat the bean bag that's his heating pad.

"Do you want me to warm them up? she asks her son. " No, I'm fine. I'm just tired," he replies. "Well, have something to eat," she continues. "Ok."

Lill says he wants to sleep. He does a lot of that. Some days, he'll sleep 16 hours.

"I feel like a 95-year-old person with Alzheimer's," he says. "I just feel horrible."

The 44-year-old says he wasn't always like this. Last February, he was working as a supervisor for the U.S. Postal Supervisor at an Orlando sorting facility. One day he noticed a stench coming from a package.

No one else has ever verified this, but Lill says the return address on the package said "Yemen." Four months earlier, two bombs from Yemen had been sent through FedEx and UPS.

Lill says this package was leaking a brown ooze.

"It was - wow, I'm searching for words - caustic," he says, slowly. "Thick."

"It was something like - benzene - something very, very strong. I never smelled that smell," says Paz Oquendo, who worked at the annex with Lill. She's one of three eyewitnesses who back Lill's account.

Lill says he grabbed the package, put it in a canvas bag and took it outside the building to a haz-mat shed. He admits he ignored the usual procedure for handling toxic substances.

"I knew that I broke protocol," he say, "but rather than evacuate the entire building and wait 30, 40, 50 - an hour for responders to come and take a look at it, I basically evacuated the area and ran everybody out of the building."

Lill says he started feeling sick almost immediately. His mother steps in to describe what happened next.

"He had a horrible headache - instantly - as soon as he leaned over this package," she says from her home in Rochester. "And a sensation of burning in his nose and his throat that was very, very intense. As he came back to the building, he noticed that his forearms were, like, itching and tingling."

Lill says he couldn't keep food down and his esophagus felt like it was on fire. He was forced to quit work and move in with his mother.

His doctor says there's something wrong with him -- but he doesn't know exactly what. He can't diagnose his disease until he knows what Lill was exposed to.

And they can't tell him, because the Postal Service says the spill never happened.

Postal officials did not return several phone calls and e-mails asking for information about Lill. But in a March letter, a Postal Service lawyer says there was no hazardous spill on February 4, 2011 at the Orlando facility.

He lays out an alternative explanation -- the lingering odor from a spill of some disinfectant two days earlier.

But three of Lill's co-workers back up his version of the story.

Yolanda Ocasio and Oquendo say the other incident was minor compared to the February 4th spill.

"Yeah, we can't breathe. It's like a toxic - we can't breathe. We feel nauseous," says Ocasio.

"I was there that day," continues Oquendo. "When that smell - it was so strong - and Jeff came out, hitting his forehead, and he said that thing went into his head. The smell was so strong that he caught a headache."

Lill has enlisted the help of New York Congresswoman Ann Marie Buerkle -- but she says the Postal Service has failed to adequately explain what happened.

Lill says he'd do the same thing again -- even though it's ruined his health.

"I've lost pretty much everything," he says from his bed. "I've lost my job, a way to earn a living, my car, my apartment, my friends. But most of all, my son. He's always lived with me, and now he's back down in Florida living with his mom, and that hurts the most."

Lill says he just wants to know what was in that package - so he has a chance to get his life back.

To view Lill's web page, click HERE.

Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.
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