I will always remember October 15, 2001. Nine years ago today I almost died.
Just one month after the worst terrorist attack on this country, the United States was paralyzed by an unseen killer in the mail. Anthrax. I was working for Senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota in 2001. The morning of October 15, a Monday, a letter containing fine anthrax powder was opened in our mail room. Congress had been subjected to hoax mailings before, but we had all known about the cases of skin anthrax in New York and the photographer in Florida who had died. When the prescence of anthrax was confirmed, our lives changed.
I’ve never really sat down to put my thoughts about this day on paper. My reluctance stems from our desire to keep out of the limelight, to respect each others’ privacy, and to not become part of the story. I continue to honor that. But ever since Shannon’s cancer diagnosis, the effect this day had on me has weighed so heavily on my mind that I have to say something.
The media at the time reported 25 Daschle staffers, 6 Capitol Police officers, and 3 members of Senator Russ Feingold’s staff were exposed to anthrax. However, those tests only confirmed the presence of anthrax spores in these peoples’ noses. Spores are tiny. Hundreds of senate staff and members of the public had to be tested. This strain was so virulent and pervasive that anyone working in an office with a “positive” result required treatment, even those who were deemed “negative.” Negative meant nothing. There was a very good chance that anthrax had entered all of our lungs. All told more than 60 people were exposed to enough spores to kill hundreds of people, if not more.
By Wednesday, every member of Senator Daschle’s staff that was working in his Hart Senate Building office was put on a 3 month regimine of Cipro. That was later extended to 4 months, along with three doses of the anthrax vaccine. Senator Feingold’s staff, the capitol police officers, and anyone who happened to be in the corridor outside our office that morning – even the pizza guy who delivered our lunch – joined us on the months long treatment. Throughout, many of us volunteered to have our blood tested by medial researchers. If being exposed to anthrax meant they could improve treatments and help people better survive a future attack, we were eager to sign up.
We should never forget that New York was impacted by these mailings, where employees of NBC News, the New York Post, and other outlets were exposed, including a 7-month old infant who contacted cutaneous (skin) anthrax. He survived and is now 9 years old. This was not an isolated attack that affected a handful of people. I think the public would be better served if they remember that.
I am particularly heartbroken by loss of the two postal workers who handled our letter. Thomas Morris, Jr. and Joseph Curseen, Jr. My colleagues and I didn’t receive any better quality of care (the same was provided for any member of the public impacted) but, unfortunately, these two men were exposed and didn’t even know it. Inhalation anthrax is a tricky bastard. It mimics the flu, and October was flu season. They didn’t have the flu. Their colleauge Leroy Richmond faired better. He was exposed around the same time, and was lucky enough to have his anthrax diagnosis made just in time. He survived, but his rehabilitation has been long and hard.
I met Mr. Richmond and Mr. Morris’s son for the first time in March of this year at an FBI briefing on the case. I wanted them to know just how much I respect and admire them for their courage and perseverence. The entire country was victimized by these attacks, but these men were on the front lines. I am extremely proud to have helped enact federal legislation renaming the mail facility at which they worked in honor of Mr. Morris and Mr. Curseen.
I’m not going to go into too much detail into the FBI and U.S. Postal Service investigation of the attacks, and the person they finally determined to be their key suspect. That suspect killed himself in 2008, so we will never have a trial and will never know for certain why he chose to kill and harm so many people through his actions. To this day, I still cannot bring myself to watch any of the documentaries about the attacks. It is just too painful.
But life goes on. I have a 23 month old that brightens my every day and I have a wife who loves and needs me. If anthrax couldn’t beat me, this cancer sure as hell won’t.
Dedicated to the memory of Robert Stevens, Thomas Morris, Jr., Joseph Curseen, Jr., Kathy Nguyen, and Ottilie Lundgren. Your sacrifice is not forgotten.