First of two parts

On the morning of his second day in the hospital, Rich Richmond's lungs filled with fluid, and blood drawn from his arm produced a culture swarming with angular strands of anthrax. Unchecked, experts knew, the bacterium could flood the bloodstream and rapidly shut down his immune system. Doctors feared the 56-year-old man might look reasonably well, but be dead by afternoon.

It was Sunday, Oct. 21, 2001, and the veteran postal worker found himself fighting for his life even as he refused to believe he had been the victim of an unimaginable attack. His wife was nearly hysterical. Federal health investigators and agents from the FBI hovered outside his Fairfax, Va., hospital room waiting to interview him. Hospital officials met with anxious physicians and staff who worried about the nature of anthrax and whether it could spread throughout the building.

The previous night, Rich had phoned his daughter and said he wanted to see her. He sounded calm. He told her he would be OK.

When he spoke to doctors, he shrugged off their diagnosis.

"Treat me for pneumonia," he said.

A few miles away, the U.S. Postal Service had just evacuated the Brentwood Mail Processing and Distribution Center in Washington, D.C., where Rich worked. His friend Thomas "Mo" Morris, a Brentwood colleague, had called 911 around 4:30 that morning, gasping for breath. Now he lay dying at a Washington hospital. His pal Joe Curseen, whose mail-sorting machine he passed every morning, had also visited an emergency room earlier that day, but was now at home, misdiagnosed with the flu, dying.

At 1 p.m., federal and state health officials joined Washington Mayor Anthony Williams at a press conference to acknowledge the first case of inhalation anthrax in the city. They did not mention Rich by name, and talked about his case only in the most general way.

But at Brentwood, workers had already pieced together what had happened in the 48 hours since Rich left work and ended up in an emergency room. Many grew angry and spoke to the media about a double standard. Clearly, they said, the anthrax threat on Capitol Hill the previous week had elicited an immediate response: Between Monday, Oct. 15, when an anthrax-tainted letter first appeared in the office of Sen. Tom Daschle, and Wednesday, Oct. 17, many Senate and House offices closed; congressional staff and hundreds of others received antibiotics. So why had it taken so much longer to close Brentwood? Why did postal officials leave workers vulnerable to an outbreak? Because Rich, like many Brentwood employees, was black, did the failure suggest that racism affected the decisions?

It was all too confusing for Rich, a man who loved his job, who always expected the best of people, who had served as a good soldier when the anthrax scare first surfaced that month in Florida and New York. When the everyday routine of sending and receiving mail became a frightening prospect and the postmaster general called on postal workers to hold the front line of defense against terrorism, he had not once shrunk from duty.

Rich wanted to believe it was all just an accident, that everything would return to normal soon. But that afternoon, as physicians and investigators went in and out of his room, his breathing grew more labored. At one point, he recalled a conversation the previous day when he heard an emergency room physician say: "We'll give him a few hours to live. He won't make it."

He turned on the TV and flipped to the Redskins football game.

At halftime, Rich watched, fascinated and puzzled, as a woman who had just visited his room appeared on screen speaking to a reporter. She said she was an official with the U.S. Postal Service. The reporter wanted to know how Rich was doing.

He's doing well, he heard the woman say. "He is watching the Redskins game and hoping they pull through."

Rich couldn't quite process it.

"He is watching the Redskins game and hoping they pull through."

This is strange, he thought. I am watching the game, but how am I doing? What am I thinking? What's happened to me?

It would be months before he would remember that moment again, before he could return to the disturbing notion that flashed in his mind, then vanished in the tension between the will to live and the need to forget.

They don't care if I live or die, he thought. They only want people to think I'm watching a game.