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This article by Peter Mladineo was prepared for the April 9, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Lessons of Anthrax & Its Aftermath

The anthrax-by-mail attacks in the autumn of 2001 terrorized

Capitol Hill, newsrooms in New York City and Florida, and the population

of central New Jersey, the area in which the letters originated. Now,

a Washington Post editor’s new book about the handling of those episodes

could strike terror into the hearts of various government agencies

which, she says, "bungled" the attacks.

Major federal government blunders probably exacerbated the effects

of the anthrax attacks of October and November, 2001, and should provide

a lesson about the perils of sluggish responses in the age of bio-terrorism,

says Marilyn Thompson, the Post’s assistant managing editor

for investigations and author of Killer Strain: Anthrax and a Government

Exposed (HarperCollins).

Thompson, who will be teaching a bioterror journalism course at Princeton

University next fall, speaks at the Princeton University Store Sunday,

April 13, at 2 p.m.

In the book she uses investigative skills to create a page-turner

that uncovers a tale of agency fumbling, cover-ups, and agonizing

deaths from inhalation anthrax. It is a harrowing story of what is

now known as the first bioterror incident in U.S. history.

"The book is distinctive because it really attempts to go back

and piece together what happened along the way and what made the crisis

worse than it really should have been," says Thompson.

Just weeks after 9/11, the United States was shaken again when a Florida

tabloid photo editor fell into a coma and died in an emergency room

with a mysterious bacteria in his spinal column. Soon thereafter,

letters containing inhalation anthrax — the cause of the Florida

man’s death — started passed through post office facilities in

Washington, D.C. and central New Jersey. Anthrax, allegedly delivered

by mail, was also detected in Congressional mailrooms and in the New

York City offices of NBC News as well as the Daily News and the Florida

offices of the Sun and the National Enquirer. Before the year’s end,

five had died, dozens were sickened, and 10,000 persons had lined-up

for anthrax vaccinations.

Two post offices, one in Brentwood in the D.C. area

and the other in Hamilton Township, were eventually closed. Hamilton,

which had handled the anthrax-contaminated letters sent to then-U.S.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and NBC-TV news anchor Tom Brokaw,

has yet to be decontaminated. Other area post offices tested positive

for anthrax, including the Princeton post office in Carnegie Center,

which was closed for weeks. As the fall wore on, its employees sorted

mail in tents set up near its rear loading docks.

The bottom line, says Thompson, was that the federal agencies handling

the attacks dropped the ball at the start. "There was just a huge

miscalculation on the part of the U.S. Postal Service and the Department

of Health and Human Services about closing these postal facilities,

the Hamilton plant being one of them. If you go back and piece together

the evidence of the anthrax, it’s potency and how it was spreading,

the moment they knew the letters had gone through them, they should

have closed them down, and they didn’t. I felt like there had been

some major agency bungling," says Thompson.

The 50-year-old Thompson, a South Carolina native, obtained her bachelor’s

degree in English from Clemson (Class of 1974), before stints at the

Philadelphia Daily News and the New York Daily News led her to the

Washington Post, where she covered the 2001 anthrax attacks on a daily

basis.

"I could tell as a reader and as an editor working on this at

the Post that there was a dimension to this that wasn’t coming through

on the reporting. It’s hard to do it in daily journalism," Thompson

says.

Thompson’s first book, Feeding The Beast: How Wedtech Became the Most

Corrupt Little Company in America (Charles Scribner & Sons), described

corporate and governmental scandal. She also co-authored a biography

of U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond (Longstreet Press) before taking on

the sickening world of anthrax.

Thompson says she wanted to put a human face on this sordid tale.

One of her main characters is Leroy "Rich" Richmond, a 32-year

veteran of the U.S. Postal Service, who inhaled anthrax on the job

at the Brentwood postal distribution center in Washington after, Thompson

alleges, federal officials knew the danger. While Richmond survived,

he lost his short-term memory and still sees lung and heart specialists

and a psychiatrist for panic attacks and depression.

Another main character in the book is John W. Ezzell,

a microbiologist with the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of

Infectious Diseases, who was told by Capitol Hill to tone down his

warnings that the anthrax packed in a letter sent to Senator Tom Daschle

was of a weaponized quality. She also writes about Dr. Jeffrey Koplan,

who resigned as the director of the Centers for Disease Control and

Prevention after being thwarted by the political aspects of the Bush

administration’s handling of what is known as the first public health

crisis involving a bioterror agent.

The Killer Strain maintains that elite research scientists had been

using the mail to exchange anthrax samples for decades and that more

than a few of those scientists were on the FBI’s list of suspects

because of their specialized knowledge, and concomitant ability to

carry out the crimes. It also postulates that the Bush administration’s

efforts to control information and downplay risk "ultimately cost

two postal workers their lives."

But the book has heroes as well as villains, including, says Thompson,

New Jersey’s acting Health Commissioner George T. DiFerdinando Jr.

and Eddy Bresnitz M.D., New Jersey state epidemiologist. "The

New Jersey situation was very intriguing to me because the New Jersey

state officials actually showed more common sense in dealing with

the potential tragedy than people in other parts of the country,"

says Thompson. "They were much more proactive than the officials

in Washington. They come across as sort of heroic."

Ultimately, Thompson hopes the book will motivate the government and

its agencies to get on the ball in the post-9/11 world, where bioterrorism

remains a threat. "As an editor I would say that after 9/11, we

really need to hold these agencies accountable for their actions,"

says Thompson, "because there really might be a wave."

— Peter Mladineo


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