Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
2001 anthrax attacks
The 2001 anthrax attacks in the United States occurred over the course of several weeks beginning on September 18, 2001 (after the September 11, 2001 attacks). Letters containing anthrax bacteria were sent to five media offices and two US Senators. Five people died as a result. To date, no individual or group has been charged with the attacks.
The first set of anthrax letters are believed to have been mailed from Trenton, New Jersey on September 18, 2001, exactly one week after the September 11th attacks. Five letters are thought to have been mailed at this time and addressed to media outlets, mostly in the New York City area. The recipients of these letters were ABC News, CBS News, NBC News, and the New York Post, all located in New York City. The other letter believed to have been mailed around this time was addressed to The National Enquirer's old mailing address and later forwarded to their new offices at American Media Inc. in Florida. AMI also publishes a tabloid called The Sun where one of the anthrax victims, Robert Stevens, died.
The second group of anthrax letters were mailed three weeks later on October 9 from Trenton NJ and addressed to two Democratic Senators, Tom Daschle of South Dakota, and Patrick Leahy of Vermont. The anthrax in the Daschle letter was described as fine powder. In comparison, the Daschle material was ten times denser in anthrax spores when compared to the retrieved New York Post sample. The Daschle anthrax consisted of nearly pure spores, with a concentration of a trillion spores per gram.
The material in the Leahy letter was from the same strain of anthrax as the powder found in Daschle letter. However, the Leahy anthrax powder had particles that were smaller and more uniform in size when compared to the Daschle anthrax. Bio-defense experts are having difficulty in reverse engineering the anthrax material found in the Senate letters.
Twenty-two individuals developed anthrax infections, mostly of the cutaneous variety. Five died of inhalation anthrax. In addition to the death of Robert Stevens in Florida, it is believed two died from cross-contamination of the mail. The "weaponized" anthrax from the Senate letters is believed to have seeped through the porous envelopes and contaminated nearby mail. Ottilie Lundren, an elderly lady from Oxford, Connecticut, and Kathy Nguyen, a Vietnamese immigrant from New York City, are believed to have died by receiving mail that had lingering anthrax spores, possibly contaminated by the Senate letters. The two remaining deaths were employees of the Brentwood mail facility in Washington, D.C.: Thomas Morris Jr., and Joseph Curseen. They are believed to have been exposed to the Senate letters as they traveled through the system.
Thousands of people in the United States took a two-month course of antibiotics in an effort to preempt anthrax infections. The antibiotic Cipro was obtained from doctors or ordered over the Internet.
The Justice Department has labeled a former government scientist Dr. Steven Hatfill as a "person of interest" in the case, but has not brought charges. Hatfill has maintained his innocence and is suing the government for violating his constitutional rights, and the news media for invasion of privacy and defamation of character.
The letters that were mailed contain at least two different grades of anthrax material. However, all of the anthrax within the letters were of the same strain. This strain, known as the Ames strain, was first researched at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), Fort Detrick, Maryland. The Ames strain was then distributed to at least fifteen bio-research labs within the US and six overseas.
Many states across the U.S. 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.
List of related events
- Boca Raton, Florida
- Robert Stevens, 63, photo editor at the supermarket tabloid 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 Timeline of the 2001 anthrax attacks in Florida)
- New York City
- Four people—Erin O'Connor, an NBC Nightly News employee; the 7-month-old child of an ABC World News Tonight employee; Claire Fletcher an employee of CBS News ; and Joanna Huden, a writer at the New York Post— contracted cutaneous anthrax. Of these, only the New York Post anthrax was found and later analyzed. One expert said the Post anthrax was similar in appearance to "Purina Dog Chow."
- Washington, D.C.
- 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 Senate 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 reopened to the public on December 22, 2003, 26 months after the anthrax attack. It was not expected to be fully staffed until February, 2004.
- 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. Divers reportedly 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.
- 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 its 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 takes soil samples from the bottom of the pond for testing.
- October 21, 2003 It is announced that decontamination of the Trenton, New Jersey post office should begin this week. It should reopen sometime in late 2004.
Text of notes
A note was found in the first set of letters mailed to the New York Post and NBC News which read, "09-11-01, THIS IS NEXT, TAKE PENACILIN NOW, DEATH TO AMERICA, DEATH TO ISRAEL, ALLAH IS GREAT". The second note that was addressed to the Senators read, "09-11-01, YOU CAN NOT STOP US. WE HAVE THIS ANTHRAX. YOU DIE NOW. ARE YOU AFRAID? DEATH TO AMERICA, DEATH TO ISRAEL, ALLAH IS GREAT".
- The Anthrax Mystery: Solved
- The Anthrax Cases by Ed Lake
- "Anthrax2001" weblog
- Analysis of the Anthrax Attacks by Barbara Hatch Rosenberg
- The Message in the Anthrax by Don Foster
- Anthrax Powder, State of the Art? by Gary Matsumoto
- The Anthrax Letters, Five Deaths, Five Grams, Five Clues
- Hatfill v. Ashcroft - lawsuit filing (PDF)
- Articles by Richard M. Smith
- FBI 'Amerithrax'
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