On today’s date in 2001, U.S. government officials announced anthrax was discovered in a House of Representatives’ postal facility on Capitol Hill, leading to two deaths and several severe illnesses.
That day, Tom Ridge, then serving as the first U.S. secretary of homeland security – a position created after the Sept. 11 attacks a month earlier – spoke to media about the ongoing investigation into anthrax exposures in Washington, D.C. At least nine postal workers had shown symptoms potentially related to inhalation anthrax, considered the most deadly form of anthrax, which is an infection caused by the bacterium Bacillus anthracis.
“The residents of Washington, D.C., and all Americans, can be confident their government is taking every step possible to ensure that our mail systems are safe and that they are secure,” said Ridge.
Two postal employees working at Washington’s Brentwood mail facility tested positive for anthrax inhalation and were treated with antibiotics.
“We also know that there are two very suspicious deaths that occurred today,” Ridge said on Oct. 22, 2001.
The dead postal workers – also employed by the Brentwood facility – were seen by their doctors a day earlier. They experienced respiratory complications and fell “critically ill and tragically, ultimately, passed away,” added Ridge.
“We are still undergoing final tests to determine absolutely that these deaths are related to anthrax exposure. The cause of death today is unclear, but I’ll tell you what is very clear: it is very clear that their symptoms are suspicious and their deaths are likely due to anthrax.”
By Oct. 22, after at least nine people presented symptoms of anthrax, about 2,000 postal workers had been tested for the rare infection.
“We are shaken by the thought of terrorists using the U.S. mail for their evil,” said U.S. Postmaster General Jack Potter, who added the two dead employees “died serving their country.”
At the Oct. 22 press conference, Potter also noted the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) was “working very hard to educate America” about suspicious letters and packages. Later that month, the USPS mailed a postcard explaining how to safely determine if mail could contain anthrax spores to every household, postal mailbox and military address—about 145 million in total. The postal service also sent instructions and posters to every major mailroom in the United States.
The U.S. Postal Inspection Service and the Federal Bureau of Investigations initially offered a $1 million reward for information leading to the people who sent the anthrax-tainted letters. The reward was later increased to $2.5 million.
A MONTH-LONG ORDEAL
The 2001 anthrax attacks took place in two waves between Sept. 18 and Oct. 12, causing five deaths and more than 20 illnesses.
On Sept. 18, five envelopes containing letters and granular substances were mailed from Trenton, N.J., to ABC News, CBS News, NBC News and the New York Post – all based in New York – plus the National Enquirer at American Media, Inc. (AMI) in Florida.
Only the envelopes mailed to the New York Post and NBC News were recovered by investigators, according to a 2008 report by NBC. The other three letters are only believed to exist because individuals at ABC News, CBS News and AMI later became infected with anthrax.
The letters mailed to the New York Post and NBC News read:
THIS IS NEXT
TAKE PENACILIN (sic) NOW
DEATH TO AMERICA
DEATH TO ISRAEL
On Oct. 2, AMI photo editor Bob Stevens went to the hospital with a 102-degree fever, vomiting and confusion. Three days later, he became the first person to die from the anthrax attacks. Stevens was also the first U.S. anthrax fatality since 1976.
In October, another two anthrax letters with the same Trenton, N.J., postmark, dated Oct. 9, were mailed to two Democratic senators.
The second set of letters addressed to Senators Tom Daschle, of South Dakota, and Patrick Leahy, of Vermont, read:
YOU CAN NOT STOP US.
WE HAVE THIS ANTHRAX.
YOU DIE NOW.
ARE YOU AFRAID?
DEATH TO AMERICA.
DEATH TO ISRAEL.
ALLAH IS GREAT.
In the ensuing investigation, U.S. authorities travelled to six continents, interviewed more than 9,000 people, conducted nearly 70 searches and issued about 6,000 subpoenas.
In August 2008, federal prosecutors declared Bruce Edwards Ivins, who died weeks earlier by suicide, was the sole culprit based on DNA evidence leading to an anthrax vial in his lab.
According to the Amerithrax Investigative Summary published by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2010, Ivins’ motive was saving the anthrax vaccine program.
“According to his emails and statements to friends, in the months leading up to the anthrax attacks in the fall of 2001, Dr. Ivins was under intense personal and professional pressure,” reads the report. “The anthrax vaccine program to which he had devoted his entire career of more than 20 years was failing. The anthrax vaccines were receiving criticism in several scientific circles, because of both potency problems and allegations that the anthrax vaccine contributed to Gulf War Syndrome. Short of some major breakthrough or intervention, he feared that the vaccine research program was going to be discontinued. Following the anthrax attacks, however, his program was suddenly rejuvenated.”
Nearly 300 pieces of disinfected mail, including pieces from the 2001 anthrax attacks as well as past pandemic outbreaks, crossed the auction block during a sale by Germany’s Auktionshaus Felzmann last July.
One letter postmarked in January 2002, following the mail-based anthrax attacks in the United States, brought 180 euros (about $275 Cdn.) as Lot 5051. Mailed from Potomac, Md., to the U.S. Department of Energy in Washington, it features a “MAIL / SANITIZED” stamp on the front after it was irradiated and disinfected like all mail to Washington in the aftermath of the anthrax attacks.
The previous lot offered an irradiated USPS flyer delivered in a plastic bag with printed instructions highlighting how the mail was handled by postal authorities. The information describes the disinfection process and apologizes for the delayed delivery and any potential damage to CDs or medication that was rendered ineffective. It brought 140 euros.
For more information about disinfected mail, visit the website of the Disinfected Mail Study Circle, a U.K.-based group founded in England in 1973, at disinfectedmail.org.