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 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.