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.
Greg Martin got the call about an hour after Leslie opened the letter, but the Navy infectious disease specialist said he wasn’t alarmed at first.
“I thought for sure it would test negative,” Martin said. But by 6 p.m. that day, Martin was at the Capitol complex planning logistics for how to deal with the staff and how to clean up the building.
It wasn’t until later that week that Martin met with staffers, and he didn’t have particularly good news. He had to tell them that while he suspected a two-month course of one of the most powerful antibiotics on the market would protect them from illness and death, he might be wrong.
“We had to say it might not work,” he said. “That understandably did terrify them.”
Wincup and Erickson, however, credit Martin with saving their lives. Erickson said everyone involved “would single him out as the reason we’re all healthy today.”
As an expert in his field, Martin had read a Canadian study showing that opening a letter containing anthrax could expose people to 1,000 to 3,000 times the lethal dose. He told Roll Call that he wasn’t sure whether after 60 days of using the antibiotic Ciprofloxacin, or Cipro, that staffers would still have enough anthrax in their system to sicken or kill them. And he said even staffers in Daschle’s office who didn’t test positive were likely in dangerous territory without the antibiotics.
Erickson said Martin gave every staffer his personal phone numbers and told them to call him at any time. When no one began feeling sick within the first week after the attack, “I was really breathing a lot easier after that,” Martin said.
The morning of the attack, Daschle had told Roll Call that he was “extremely exhilarated.” After suffering with severe migraines, he had been worried about the potential for a more serious illness, and that day he had just gotten a clean bill of health following an MRI test. However, shortly after he got to the Capitol, he was informed of the danger to his staff.
“There was great anxiety,” Daschle said, noting that an American Media employee in Florida had already died from inhalation of anthrax and news outlets in New York had also received letters containing the microbe. Before it was all over, five people would die from the flurry of letters — including two Washington, D.C., postal workers who may have handled the letter sent to Daschle and/or another letter sent to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). The Leahy letter was not discovered until November and did not appear to have contaminated his office, but the suites of Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) did need remediation. The Hart Building was closed for three months while the Environmental Protection Agency cleaned the site.
Wincup said there were two incidents on the 15th that really shook him as he was quarantined in the anthrax-laden office.
“There was a point when people in white suits came in, and it took on a whole other level of seriousness. That was scary,” an emotional Wincup said.