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2001 anthrax attack

The 2001 anthrax attack was a series of events that took place over several weeks in September and October 2001. Cases of anthrax due to bioterrorism broke out at various locations. Because these immediately followed the September 11, 2001 Terrorist Attack there has been speculation of linkage between the two events. This was strengthened by allegations that the "skin lesion[?]" for which Ahmed al-Haznawit, one of the alleged September 11 hijackers, sought treatment at Holy Cross Hospital in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, was in fact caused by cutaneous anthrax.

There were numerous exposures, several infections (nineteen), and five fatalities (listed here for now). Thousands were tested. 10,000 people in the United States took a two-month course of antibiotics after possible exposure. Hundreds or thousands of unexposed persons acquired the antibiotic Cipro through their doctors or over the Internet. Later statistical analysis claims that approximately 5 deaths and 25 non-fatal cases of anthrax were prevented by prompt antibiotic use.

All of the anthrax spores in the mail were found to be of an identical strain. This strain is one that the U.S. military used for study at USAMRIID and distributed to other government and university labs as well as to other governments including Great Britain. The FBI claims that they are concentrating on a domestic terrorist and that the anthrax attack was not related to the September 11th, 2001 attack.

Here is a look at the anthrax-related events that occurred around the United States:

Table of contents

Boca Raton, Florida

Robert Stevens, 63, photo editor at the supermarket tabloid The Sun, published by American Media Inc., died on October 5, 2001 from contracting pulmonary anthrax from an envelope. Stevens was a British-born outdoorsman and gardener who resided in Lantana[?], Florida. Ernesto Blanco[?], 73, mail supervisor at The Sun, contracted pulmonary anthrax as well, but responded to treatment.

See full Florida timeline.

New York City and New Jersey

Four people, Erin O'Connor[?], an NBC Nightly News employee, the 7-month-old child of an ABC World News Tonight employee, a female CBS News[?] employee who handles mail, and a Hamilton Township, New Jersey postal employee, contracted cutaneous anthrax. All are being treated and are expected to recover fully.

See full New York timeline.

Reno, Nevada

  • October 12, 2001, a letter sent to Microsoft's licensing office in Reno, Nevada from Malaysia was tentatively tested positive for anthrax. Bacteria of the same genus as anthrax was found growing on the letter. Later tests were contradictory, but the final analysis as of October 13 is that anthrax was present on the letter. Nevada governor Kenny Gunn[?] announced in a press conference that the envelope contained a Microsoft check and five pornographic pictures which appeared to have been previously moistened. Microsoft had sent the check to a vendor in Malaysia. Anthrax was found on one of the pictures but not on the check. There have been no reported illnesses.

Washington, D.C.

  • October 15, 2001, President Bush announces a letter sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle had anthrax in it.
  • October 16, 2001, Tests confirm the presence of anthrax in the letter sent to Daschle. Furthermore, the anthrax powder is found to be extraordinarily pure and fine. Many in the media start calling it 'weapons grade' material, but federal officials call that an exaggeration. Authorities suggest this could only be produced with sophisticated knowledge and equipment, possibly by a state-funded organization. One possible source would be from one of the approximately 20 institutions in the United States which study anthrax, and have had relatively lax security procedures. Another would be Iraq or the former Soviet Union.
  • October 17, 2001, 31 Capitol workers (five Capitol police officers, three Russ Feingold[?] staffers, 23 Tom Daschle staffers), test positive for the presence of anthrax (presumably via nasal swabs, etc.). Feingold's office is behind Daschle's in the Hart Building[?]. Anthrax spores are found in a Senate mailroom located in an office building near the Capitol. There are rumors that anthrax was found in the ventilation system of the Capitol building itself. The House of Representatives announces it will adjourn in response to the threat.
  • October 22, 2001: Federal officials announce that two D.C. area United States Postal Service workers have died from what appears to be pulmonary anthrax contracted from handling mail.
  • October 23, 2001: It is confirmed that the two postal handlers died of pulmonary anthrax. The men were identified as Joseph P. Curseen, 47, and Thomas L. Morris Jr., 55.
  • December 14, 2002: The U.S. Postal Service begins to decontaminate the Brentwood mail facility 14 months after it was closed. It is not expected to reopen until April 2003. The State Department mail facility expects to begin decontamination in the summer of 2003.

Texas

In March 2002, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that a Texas lab worker had contracted the skin form of the disease. This is the first new case related to the anthrax letters since November 2001. The worker worked in a lab contracted by the CDC to help analyze the large number of samples from the anthrax investigation. Since this was not a lab that normally worked for the CDC, there are questions of whether workers were vaccinated for anthrax.

Frederick, Maryland

  • May 11, 2003, Ponds on the north side of Catoctin Mountain[?], near Gambrill Park[?] Road and Tower Road in Frederick, Maryland, are under investigation by the FBI, in connection with the 2001 anthrax attacks. FBI investigators found anthrax spores and other evidence in their search of ponds in the area during December and January, 2002. Divers retrieved a "clear box" with holes that could accommodate protective biological safety gloves, as well as vials wrapped in plastic from a pond in the Frederick Municipal Forest. A new theory has been developed suggesting how a criminal could have packed anthrax spores into envelopes without harming (him/her)self. Officials from Fort Detrick have stated that the water is safe because once in water anthrax spores cluster together and descend to the bottom. The water in the pond has been tested several times over the course of the investigation, and all indications are that the water is safe.
  • June 9, 2003, The FBI begins to drain the Frederick, Maryland pond which contained the box found by divers, hoping to uncover more evidence.
  • June 28, 2003, The FBI finishes it investigation of the pond in Frederick, Maryland. Items found in the pond include a bicycle, some logs, a street sign, coins, fishing lures, and a handgun. The FBI took soil samples from the bottom of the pond for testing.

Anthrax scares, rumors, news

  • October 10, 2001: An office building in Montreal is evacuated after Globe International receives an envelope from American Media in Boca Raton (see above). The envelope is not opened, is recovered by firefighters, and is later found to be harmless.

  • October 12: The New York Times briefly closes its offices after Judith Miller, a reporter who coauthored "Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War", receives an envelope postmarked October 5 from St. Petersburg, Florida containing a white, sweet-smelling powder. The letter was addressed with crude handwritten block letters, with no return address. She opens it at 9:15 a.m. EDT and the powder coats her face and hands. It is later found not to contain anthrax. 32 employees were tested, and none were found to have been exposed to anthrax.

  • October 17: The FBI arrests a third person for sending a hoaxed anthrax letter. The Rhode Island man mailed it to his friend, who called 9-1-1.

  • October 18: In Nairobi, Kenya, the Kenyan health minister announces that a letter sent from Atlanta to a Kenyan citizen tested positive for anthrax spores. Two other suspicious envelopes, one of which was sent to a Nairobi United Nations office, are being tested. These all test negative.

  • December: Clayton Lee Waagner, 45, was arrested for sending more than 550 letters which claimed to contain anthrax to women's health clinics.

  • March 13 2002: The FBI announces that 10 fake anthrax letters were mailed to various Hispanic organizations in the past two days. These letters all contained a white powder that was not anthrax. Although no one is arrested yet for this crime, at least 35 others have been arrested in the U.S. for similar hoaxes.

  • May 11, 2003: FBI announces find of anthrax evidence in Frederick, MD (see above).

Political impact

Although the physical impact of the event was small relative to other acts of war or terrorism, the political impact of these events was tremendous. Many states across the globe passed laws making hoaxes more serious crimes than they were previous to the attack. Attention focused on biowar and bioterrorism and other less active measures to promote biosecurity (e.g. toughened U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations to protect the United States supply of imported food from both accidental and human-introduced toxic substances). Also, research to identify genetically-modified bacteria (e.g. e. coli) with toxic genes (e.g. from the anthrax bacterium) introduced by human effort, was well underway by late 2002. This research would help identify a deliberate (versus accidental) attack more quickly. The slow and often confused response by U.S. government officials, who often contradicted themselves during the 2001 attacks, was in part due to a lack of clear answers about anthrax and its use as a weapon. Accordingly a great effort has focused on getting answers in advance of another attack, and anticipating vectors (such as genetically modified e. coli) which would be far less traceable to source than any mailed letter.

Perhaps most importantly, no individual or group has been charged with the attacks themselves, as of the end of 2002. This suggests future attacks of this nature may be more likely than air hijackings or suicide bombings, as the various pre-requisites to biological warfare (labs, knowledge, genomes and sequencers, incubators) become more commonly available throughout the world.



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