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Anthrax Attack Victims Break Their Silence

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Workers in hazardous material suits regroup after sweeping House office buildings for anthrax in October 2001, when letters with the powder were sent to two Senate offices.

Bret Wincup wasn’t even paid to be there.

A new employee of the Senate doorkeeper’s office in 2001, Wincup spent his off-hours volunteering in then-Sen. Tom Daschle’s office in the Hart Senate Office Building.

Sometimes he answered phones, but on the morning of Oct. 15, 2001, he was helping to open the volumes of mail that are typically sent to the Senate Majority Leader.

So when one of the South Dakota Democrat’s interns, Grant Leslie, cut open a letter purporting to be from a fourth-grade class in New Jersey, Wincup, who was nearby, was covered in deadly anthrax spores.

“We both kind of commented on it,” Wincup said in his first interview since the attack. “It was on our clothes, and the desk in front of us.”

“It looked like baby powder,” Leslie told PBS’ “Frontline.” “I was wearing a dark gray skirt and black shoes, and you could see it — just vividly — on the dark colors.” Leslie declined to be interviewed by Roll Call for this article. She has never spoken publicly about it before her brief “Frontline” interview, which aired Tuesday.

Indeed, the 28 people who tested positive for anthrax exposure in 2001 have rarely been seen or publicly heard from in the past 10 years. In the months after the attacks, Leslie’s identity was cloaked in secrecy, as were the identities of other exposed staffers — 20 from Daschle’s office along with a handful of Capitol Police officers and a few aides to then-Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), whose office was next door to Daschle’s.

Nancy Erickson, Daschle’s deputy chief of staff at the time, said the secrecy was purposeful.

“It was an unsaid agreement,” Erickson explained in her first interview on the subject. “We were going to go through this together, and we were going to do it privately as a group.”

On any other day of the week, Erickson would have been working out of the Capitol. But on Mondays, most of Daschle’s staff headed over to the Hart Building for the regular South Dakota strategy meeting.

“I remember someone popped their head into the room and said an envelope was opened with powder in it,” she recalled.

Initially, however, Erickson felt somewhat secure. As she watched staffers bring in their contaminated clothes the day after the attack, she said she cried at her desk over her concern for their safety. Daschle came up behind her and gently counseled, “Nancy, we have to be strong” for the younger staffers, she remembered.

It wasn’t until later that Erickson learned she also had tested positive for exposure to anthrax. She ended up turning over her clothes, too.

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