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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
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
"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
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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