If It Happened Here 

A bioterrorism attack on Los Angeles might look a lot like this

Thursday, Feb 20 2003
Photos by Virginia Lee Hunter

ON WEDNESDAY, MARCH 5, 2003, AROUND 5:30 P.M., a single-engine Cessna 172 passes over the Santa Monica Mountains, just west of the 405 freeway, heading southeast at 3,500 feet. Over the next 10 minutes it will fly over Brentwood, LAX, Hawthorne, Torrance and Long Beach. Because it will stay carefully in the prescribed north-south transit corridor through the Los Angeles Special Flight Rules Area and squawk code 1201 on the transponder; air traffic control will pay no attention to the plane, and the pilot won't be required to file a flight plan or identify himself in any way.

Although the pilot doesn't know it, and wouldn't care if he did, he is about to pass over the sprawling Brentwood home of a high-powered movie agent who, at the moment, is standing on her tennis court, totally dominating a bearded, paunchy screenwriter with her powerful forehand and blazing serve. In fact, it occurs to the agent, as she delivers yet another winner, she couldn't have asked for a better day. At 10 in the morning, the Porsche dealer had delivered her new Cayenne SUV. At a lunch meeting, she closed a two-picture deal with Miramax for a hot new client. Now she's punishing the writer so badly he's too winded to talk, let alone make another smart-ass gibe. Later that evening, she'll be celebrating — dinner at Spago, drinks at the Sky Bar. But just as she tosses up the ball for what she fully expects will be the match-winning point, she notices a fleeting white cloud overhead, like a mini-rain squall, trailing a plane across the sky. What in the hell are they doing now? she wonders. Spraying for more Medflies?

As the agent pounds out the final shot and walks over to the net to flash her infamous "I win again" smile and shake the writer's damp, defeated hand, she makes a mental note to put the Cayenne in the garage before dressing for dinner — don't they realize that that Medfly crap can ruin the finish on a car?

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Two days later and 22 miles across town, a veterinarian from Bellflower is kneeling in a longtime client's back yard, examining Martha, a potbellied pig. Martha is lying on her side, covered in blue sores, dripping blood from the corner of her mouth and making a harsh, shrill sound whenever she breathes. Having never seen anything like this before, the veterinarian injects the pig with antibiotics and, telling the weeping owner he needs to research the problem, gets in his car and drives home. All the way he keeps thinking, Blue sores on a pig? Where have I heard that before?

In the early hours of Saturday morning, the answer comes to him so suddenly that he finds himself sitting up in bed. Of course, he says. There'd been a question about blue pig sores in an animal-epidemiology test in veterinary school. Switching on the light, he picks up the phone and leaves a message on the county health-department communicable-disease reporting hot line: "Please call me back. I'm a veterinarian in Bellflower. I've come across something I think you ought to know about."

That same morning, a kindergarten teacher from Riverside, flying a Beechcraft Bonanza to join her husband for the weekend in Lake Havasu City, spots a Cessna 172 on Cadiz Dry Lake in the eastern Mojave. Thinking that perhaps someone had engine trouble or ran out of gas, she cuts power, banks left and sets down beside the Cessna. That's strange, she thinks, as she turns her engine off. Strips of gray duct tape hang down from the inside of the Cessna's cockpit door, as if the pilot has been trying to protect himself from the outside air. The first thing she sees, when she looks inside, is a stainless-steel box, bolted to the floor behind the pilot's seat and connected to the aircraft's side-mounted venturi by a black vacuum hose. "Whoa," she says, freezing in the doorway. "What in the world is that?"

As it happens, it is not only a bio-weapons delivery platform, it's such a sophisticated one that when the pilot flew over the middle of LAX two days previously, hardly anyone on the ground even noticed him, let alone realized that he had just laid down a long, near-invisible cloud of anthrax spores, each one so infinitesimally fine and light that 25 in a row were still no wider than a human hair.

Over the course of six hours, a gentle westerly wind blew these tiny spores across much of the L.A. basin, where they settled on homes, yards, patios and cafés; floated into windows and intake vents; landed on freeways, soccer fields, dog parks and Brentwood tennis courts. By Thursday morning, 624,000 people — and nearly as many animals — had inhaled them. It was the most deadly attack ever made on America, and it had been carried out both in total secrecy and with consummate ease — though, for the moment, not a single person had any symptoms at all.

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