Skip to main content /TRANSCRIPTS


The Anthrax Mystery

Aired March 26, 2002 - 20:00   ET


ANNOUNCER: This is a CNN special report.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We do have a confirmed case of anthrax. A 63-year-old man...


ANNOUNCER: Just weeks after the September 11 attacks, a new fear sweeps America.


TOM RIDGE, HOMELAND SECURITY DIRECTOR: Both of these workers experienced respiratory complications, became critically ill, tragically, ultimately passed away.


ANNOUNCER: Anthrax in the mail. Anthrax in the air. A nervous nation confronts a new enemy.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Those facilities will be closed until there's assurance that they're safe and they're sanitized.


ANNOUNCER: Few clues in the investigation.


VAN HARP, ASSISTANT FBI DIRECTOR: Contrary to what was initially out there at the beginning of the investigation, this anthrax, we do not believe, was made up in a garage or a bathtub.


ANNOUNCER: But six months since the anthrax letters were mailed, apparently no suspects in sight. We'll go behind closed doors to Ft. Detrick, Maryland, for a rare look inside the investigation.


SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Behind an entrance marked "Infectious Area Crash Door," samples of deadly spores from attacks that began last October.


ANNOUNCER: The victims. Why did some live and some die?


LEROY RICHMOND, ANTHRAX SURVIVOR: It is an amazement to me how two of my closest friends that I knew quite well got the anthrax bacteria and died and myself and another person got the same effect from the bacteria and lived.


ANNOUNCER: This is a CNN special report, The Anthrax Mystery with Kate Snow.

KATE SNOW, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Good evening. I'm standing inside the Harte Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., one of the front lines in last fall's anthrax attacks. Right behind me, over here, Senator Tom Daschle's office where that letter filled with anthrax was first opened. That office is still closed down today, but the rest of this building is open now. That after three long months of cleanup.

And just up the road about two miles away from me, the Brentwood mail facility, which processed mail for Congress also remains closed. Just today, they announced -- the postal service announced plans to clean it up and start decontaminating that building.

But as we remember tonight, this story is not just about Washington, D.C., not confined to our nation's capitol, the first death from anthrax occurred in Florida. And then there were others in New York, in New Jersey, in Connecticut. Then as quickly as it started, the attack apparently ended. But what have we learned in the last six months and how close are investigators to figuring out who launched these attacks? We'll get to that. But first, CNN's Michael Okwu takes us back to last autumn when a nation still reeling from the September 11 attacks was attacked again.


MICHAEL OKWU, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Twenty-five days after 9/11, a scare in Florida. Images that conjure bioterrorism. Headlines confirm the first U.S. case of inhalation anthrax in almost 25 years and the nagging question -- is this an isolated case or a harbinger of something much worse?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Based on what we know at this point, it appears that it's an isolated case.

OKWU: Then nine other infections in New York, New Jersey, Florida and the District of Columbia, not yet known. Robert Stevens, a 63-year-old photo editor for the "Sun" newspaper, died on October 5. News reports ominously confirmed he lived close to the airstrip the 9/11 hijackers used for training.

DR. BRADLEY PERKINS, CENTERS FOR DISEASE CONTROL AND PREVENTION: Where this individual lived and where some of the terrorist's training took place, I think heightened everyone's sense of anxiety.

OKWU (on-camera): What followed was a process, which in the weeks ahead would be repeated with startling regularity. The federal government dispatched teams of scientists and law enforcement agents to scour areas where the victim had been seen.

PERKINS: We were able to create a trail of contamination inside the workplace that suggested that mail may have been the vehicle for exposure.

OKWU (voice-over): October 12, authorities confirming an NBC news aide contracted cutaneous anthrax. It becomes clear the highly visible media has become a target.

RUDOLPH GIULIANI (R), FORMER MAYOR OF NEW YORK CITY: At this point, there are four confirmed anthrax cases in New York City, one at NBC, one at ABC, one at CBS and one at "The New York Post".

OKWU: In New York, pharmacies reported a run on Ciprofloxacin despite warnings from health officials not to use the antibiotic unless diagnosed.

By this time, anthrax-laced letters postmarked in Trenton, New Jersey and addressed to Senators Daschle and Patrick Leahey had infected nine postal workers in Washington and New Jersey. Twelve Senate offices were closed and staffers tested while the post offices remained open. Officials concede they underestimated the potency of the spores.

October 21...

THOMAS MORRIS JR., VICTIM: My breathing is very, very labored.

OKWU: D.C. postal employee, Thomas Morris Jr., calls 911. He died of inhalation anthrax one day before another fellow worker, Joseph Kurcine.

Ten days later, a remarkable announcement.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Kathy Nguyen, a 61-year-old employee of Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital died early this morning.

OKWU: Inhalation anthrax, a hospital worker with no known ties to the government or media.

On November 21, 94-year-old Ottalie Lundgren, a resident in a remote corner of Connecticut, became the nation's fifth anthrax death. Officials say trace amounts of the spores were found on a letter sent to her family a mile away from her home. In all, 18 others were infected, but the cases of Lundgren and Nguyen underscored the puzzle. What started with questions ended with many more. Did cross contamination in the mail explain all the cases? How many spores does it really take to kill and just who did the killing?

Michael Okwu, CNN, New York.


SNOW: It's been six months since the first anthrax-tainted letters were mailed out, spreading nationwide fear that any of us could be at risk and months of intense investigations have yielded few clues. No suspects at all. CNN's Susan Candiotti looks now at where things stand with a rare glimpse inside the lab where anthrax spores are being tested.


CANDIOTTI (voice-over): The latest anthrax analysis is yielding another key clue. CNN has learned the deadly spores filling the letters to Senators Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy are even more pure than investigators thought, making it highly unlikely the anthrax killer could have made and treated the spores in a makeshift setting.

HARP: The person knew what they were doing.

CANDIOTTI: Assistant FBI director, Van Harp, is leading the investigation.

HARP: Contrary to what was initially out there, at the beginning of the investigation, this anthrax, we do not believe, was made up in a garage or a bathtub.

CANDIOTTI: The FBI has narrowed the labs to about two-dozen believed capable of making the deadly spores.

HARP: There are only so many people, so many places that this can be done.

CANDIOTTI: One of them is here, the U.S. Army lab at Ft. Detrick, Maryland. CNN was given a rare look inside a key laboratory leased by the FBI to help find the anthrax killer. Behind an entrance marked "Infectious Area Crash Door," samples of deadly spores from attacks that began last October.

MAJ. GEN. JOHN PARKER, FORMER COMMANDER, FT. DETRICK: We're looking for the original ownership of a bacteria and then, who stole it to use it for this elicit, immoral purpose.

CANDIOTTI: Over the years, for research purposes, Ft. Detrick shared its anthrax with other labs. In the 1990s, there were a series of security lapses here. It also has a history of training highly skilled scientists, leading some to suggest the spores or even the anthrax killer might be associated with the lab. Until his retirement last week, Major General John Parker oversaw the team of scientists at the Army's medical research lab here, assigned to the FBI's anthrax case.

PARKER: When you think of well, where did anthrax possibly come from, you have to think of our laboratory.

CANDIOTTI: Ft. Detrick is where the FBI opened the intercepted anthrax stuffed letter addressed to Senator Patrick Leahy. Dr. Johnny Zell is the gloved scientist seen here gingerly pulling the letter and deadly spores out of the envelope.

(on-camera): What was going through your mind, knowing that the world was watching, really?

JOHNNY ZELL, SCIENTIST: Not to make a mistake. But no, it was interesting; I just felt very good afterwards that we were very successful in removing the material and protecting the properties of the material.

CANDIOTTI (voice-over): Beyond groundbreaking science, there are investigative handicaps -- no crime scene, just a handful of letters. Five thousand interviews have yielded no suspect.

HARP: Quite possibly, we've already interviewed the person once, but we're going to get back to him if we did.

CANDIOTTI: Some scientists accuse the FBI of stalling to protect government secrets.

BARBARA ROSENBERG, FEDERATION OF AMERICAN SCIENTISTS: There may be embarrassing information connected with the entire event and that there may not be really enthusiasm about bringing this information out to the public.

CANDIOTTI: The FBI bristles at those suggestions.

HARP: Those are uninformed outsiders.

CANDIOTTI: After searching everything left behind by the September 11 hijackers, the FBI says there is absolutely no evidence linking them to the anthrax attacks. In the end, science may hold the key to the killer.

HARP: But once the science half is done, I think, we are going to solve this investigation.

CANDIOTTI (on-camera): After months of research and meticulous testing at labs here and elsewhere and thousands of interviews, the FBI says it has no single suspect and cannot predict when it will solve the anthrax attacks.

Susan Candiotti, CNN, at Ft. Detrick, Frederick, Maryland.


ANNOUNCER: Next, what we've learned.


RICHMOND: I think the most important lesson to be learned is that you just can't take things for granted when you get a warning sign that people's lives could be endangered.


ANNOUNCER: And later, neither snow, nor rain, nor anthrax.


DEBORAH WILLHITE, U.S. POSTAL SERVICE: We're very realistic about the potential threat and we're doing all that we can to make sure that we have safety and detection in our mail screen.


ANNOUNCER: How safe is your mail? Our special report, The Anthrax Mystery returns in two minutes.

But first, time for your opinion. Six months after the initial scare, do you think an anthrax attack remains a viable threat? To cast your ballot in the "Quick Vote," head to The AOL keyword is CNN. A reminder, this poll is not scientific.


ANNOUNCER: Before last year's anthrax attacks claimed five lives; the last reported death from the deadly bacteria was back in 1976.

SNOW: Last fall, this hallway behind me was filled with Congressional staffers, all of them lining up, waiting to be swabbed and tested, fearing that they had been exposed to anthrax, the same sort of thing was going on all over other areas at the postal services. But for some who were later diagnosed with inhalation anthrax, it was too late.

Critics say the postal service was too slow in responding to the wave of anthrax attacks and left its workers vulnerable to tainted letters. One infected postal worker who survived spoke with CNN medical correspondent Rea Blakey as she examines the lessons learned.


REA BLAKEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The odds were against Leroy Richmond living to tell his story. He was the first of four Washington area postal workers diagnosed with inhalational anthrax.

RICHMOND: It is an amazement to me how two of my closest friends that I knew quite well got the anthrax bacteria and died and myself and another person got the same effect from the bacteria and lived.

BLAKEY: That was a lesson learned by Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF ALLERGY AND INFECTIOUS DISEASES: Aggressive treatment of sick individuals really takes us away from what was previously thought to be a virtually 100 percent mortality in people with inhalational anthrax.

BLAKEY: Richmond returned to his workplace for the first time with us. Ironically, when he was infected he'd been diverted from his usual job.

(on-camera): You were teaching the bioterrorism class to the other employees as to what to look out for.

RICHMOND: Yes, I was reading the syllabuses from the CDC and from the post office department.

BLAKEY (voice-over): Temporarily assigned to help spruce up things before the post master general's tour, records show Richmond was infected with anthrax spores after a mail sorting machine was cleaned with a high pressure hose. Another lesson learned the hard way.

RICHMOND: They knew the postmaster was coming that Thursday, OK, even though the Daschle letter had been found the week before.

BLAKEY (on-camera): A week and two days after the Daschle letter arrived, Mr. Richmond was hospitalized and diagnosed with inhalational anthrax. His wife, also a postal employee, called the troubling news in, but the postal service management was waiting on guidelines from the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention. Unfortunately, the CDC itself was in uncharted territory at the time.

FAUCI: What we learned from the mail service anthrax attack is that you've really got to look at the vulnerable people along the chain of exposure.

BLAKEY (voice-over): That lesson had already been learned by the Canadian Defense Department. In a study conducted months before September 11, Canadian officials determined unopened envelopes containing anthrax do pose health risks to mail handlers and that opening such a letter could instantly release millions of deadly spores into the air. They tried to warn U.S. health officials once the attacks began but the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention didn't open the e-mail in a timely fashion. Another lesson learned.

Dr. Ivan Walks is Washington, D.C.'s health director.

DR. IVAN WALKS, WASHINGTON D.C. HEALTH DIRECTOR: The number one thing that has to happen is who gets to know what.

BLAKEY: Dr. Walks wants advance security clearance for the appropriate local officials who could be battling bioterrorism in their communities.

WALKS: Though we lost Mr. Morris and Mr. Kurcine, they tried to kill all of us and we did a good job considering. BLAKEY: After the attacks, everyone seems to agree effective communication is the real key to crisis management.

Dr. Larry Bush is the infectious disease expert who diagnosed the very first case of inhalational anthrax, a Florida man who died October 4.

DR. LARRY BUSH, JFK MEDICAL CENTER: The initial approach, which was, this is an isolated case of inhalation anthrax, which we don't think has anything to do with anything. I think that was a mistake.

BLAKEY: Dr. Bush also says he hopes the government has learned not to take so long to tell the public about other antibiotics for treating anthrax.

BUSH: And it created sort of this scare and the scarcity and this black market for Ciprofloxacin that didn't doctor have to occur.

BLAKEY: How should government communicate with the public?

WALKS: One message targeted to diverse populations so at the end of the day, you get everybody doing one behavior.

BLAKEY: As for survivor, Leroy Richmond...

RICHMOND: I think the most important lesson to be learned is that you just can't take things for granted when you get a warning sign that people's lives could be endangered.

BLAKEY: Richmond remains on sick leave, driving in to give multiple blood samples to doctors every week. After all, there is still science to be gleaned, lessons to be learned.

Rea Blakey, CNN, Washington.




WILLHITE: We'll be putting in systems so that we can test anything that is abnormal immediately to find out and capture that piece of mail.


ANNOUNCER: The massive and expensive job of keeping your mail safe.

For more on the lessons learned from the anthrax attacks, including 10 things you should know about the deadly bacteria, head to our special section at The AOL keyword is CNN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: I'm Anderson Cooper in New York. Tonight on "THE POINT," why the Yates case may not be over. We'll look at the question of charging Russell Yates with child endangerment. Also, a woman who's the marrying kind, but apparently not the divorcing kind. She faces five counts of bigamy. "THE POINT" begins in less than 10 minutes. Now, back to the special report, "The Anthrax Mystery."

SNOW: The U.S. Postal Service, it's something generations of Americans have depended on, but in light of the anthrax attack, just how safe is your mail? When our special report returns, the cure and the cost of making sure the mail is anthrax-free.


ANNOUNCER: Five hundred fifty million pieces of mail are handled by the U.S. postal service each day.

SNOW: The U.S. Postal Service today unveiled detailed plans to decontaminate the Brentwood mail facility contaminated by anthrax here in Washington, D.C. The building is now sealed to prevent anthrax spores from getting out. The next step now is to pump in chlorine dioxide gas to kill the bacteria, just like they did here in the Harte building, but that won't happen immediately.


MAS DAY, U.S. POSTAL SERVICE: The time to start the process is still under discussion. It will take many weeks if not a couple of months in the most optimistic scenario. There are still details to be worked out. Our key point is not time. We'd like to do it as quickly as possible. The key point is we're going to do it right. We're going to make the building safe for employees and customers and when it's done right, then we'll open the building.


SNOW: Two postal workers at Brentwood died from inhalation anthrax; two others contracted anthrax and then recovered.

In the weeks following the anthrax attacks last fall, many Americans became very scared of opening the mail. The service that they had always depended on, the U.S. post office, months later, is there still reason for concern or is the mail finally safe again?


SNOW (voice-over): When mail finally arrives at the Harte Senate Office Building these days, it's had a long trip. All the way to Ohio or New Jersey and back to be irradiated, cleaned of anthrax or any other potential biological contaminants. It's supposed to make the mail safe, but Anton Raus (ph) isn't taking any chances. He wears latex gloves to open letters sent to Senator Tom Parker. Parker's office is just across the atrium from Senator Daschle's office where that now infamous anthrax laden letter was opened back in October. Raus (ph) isn't the only one who's nervous. Earlier this month, the U.S. Postal Service delivered a 75-page report to Congress. It admits up front, the postal service is not immune to the possibility of being a terrorism target again.

WILLHITE: We're very realistic. We're doing all that we can to provide a safe mail stream for the American public, but we're very realistic about the potential threat.

SNOW: Deborah Willhite says Americans shouldn't be afraid to open the mail. The postal service is moving quickly with plans to make it safer. The immediate focus on the nearly 300 major mail distribution centers all over the U.S. where hand-mailed letters arrive by the thousands. It used to be that compressed air was blown over the machines to keep them clean. Not a good idea if a letter on the belt contains powdered anthrax. So now, the postal service is installing thousands of special filtering vacuum cleaners to suck up the air around the mail. And what if there's something harmful in one of those letters? The postal service is testing high-tech sensors in an effort to detect anthrax and other biohazards.

WILLHITE: Well, we'll be putting in systems so that we can test anything that is abnormal immediately to find out and capture that piece of mail that is in it so that it never goes into the mail stream and out to a customer.

SNOW: Ideally, Willhite says sensors would one day be inside every mailbox on every street corner, but that's a long way off. There are 350,000 mailboxes in the U.S. and the initial cost estimate for resigning them to detect contamination is about $1,000 each.

In fact, none of these new measures comes cheap. The postal service has already received more than half a billion dollars from Congress and that's just the beginning.

REP. STENY HOYER (D), MARYLAND: I think they're going to need from $1 billion to $3 billion additional resources to get the kind of technology that will keep the employees, the some 900,000 people who work for the postal department safe and then keep safe anybody who receives mail. So this is going to be an expensive proposition.


SNOW: Even with all that spending, they say that the cheapest thing might be the best defense against anthrax. The postal service continues to tell its customers to be vigilant, watch for torn or battered envelopes, be wary of anything sent by someone you don't know and report any suspicious powder. The young woman who opened that letter in Senator Daschle's office up here, she reported it right away and authorities say that may well have saved lives.

And that's it for our special report, "The Anthrax Mystery." I'm Kate Snow in Washington. Good night.




Back to the top