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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.

Again, he was shaken when, while watching the news, he heard then-President George W. Bush tell the nation, “I just talked to Leader Daschle and his office received a letter, and it had anthrax in it. The letter was field-tested, and the staffers that have been exposed are being treated.”

No one on Capitol Hill became ill or died, but only a month had transpired between the anthrax attacks and the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, in which the Capitol was spared. “It was just getting back to normal after Sept. 11,” said Rodell Mollineau, Daschle’s former deputy press secretary, who was sitting in the same Oct. 15 meeting with Erickson.

But the contamination on Capitol Hill — including in the Ford House Office Building — sent new shivers of panic across the Dome. People lined up by the hundreds to be tested, including reporters who had stood outside Daschle’s office suite on the day of the attack.

“We were all under attack and felt threatened,” said former Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who was Minority Leader at the time. “I had one staff member who left and went home” after the anthrax attack, Lott added.

Martin said 5,000 to 6,000 people in the Capitol community ended up receiving free doses of Cipro.

“We did not feel that many people should be on it,” Martin said, noting some people took it even if they weren’t sure whether they’d been in Hart on the day of the attack. “We could not definitively say whether you were at risk or not,” he added. “If we were to do it over again, we probably would do it the same.”

That abundance of caution wasn’t without its victims. John Angell, a top staffer for Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), was in a meeting room adjacent to Daschle’s suite on Oct. 15 and was given Cipro as a precaution. He now walks with cane because the powerful antibiotic nearly destroyed his Achilles’ tendons. After he sued the drugmaker, Cipro now comes with a warning about its potential effects on tendons.

Erickson said she still sees Angell, who continues to work for Baucus.

“Every time I see him, he is a visible reminder of the damage and the suffering,” she said.

For the staffers involved, the attack wasn’t just limited to the Hart Building. Because investigators failed to decontaminate staffers before they left on the 15th, their family members were potentially exposed.

Wincup said he exposed his parents to his contaminated clothes, and they ended up on antibiotics as well. Erickson said she also worried about her family.

“I thought, ‘Oh my god, did I infect my family?’” she said.

Despite the FBI’s insistence that it had identified the culprit — government scientist Bruce Ivins, who committed suicide when the FBI began to focus on him in 2008 — some of those affected by the attacks expressed lingering doubts about whether the perpetrator has really been caught. Recently, some scientists have suggested that if Ivins did it — and others are not persuaded he did — he must have had an accomplice in order to produce the type of weaponized anthrax that was sent to Daschle.

“I’m not convinced they fingered the right man,” Martin said.

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