By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Three or four times during the day, she vaguely hears her answering machine pick up and her secretary's voice saying something about calling "Harvey at Miramax." But she feels too weak and exhausted to get out of bed, let alone match wits with Weinstein. It isn't until 7 p.m. Friday night that her bearded, tennis-playing writer friend shows up for yet another story conference, only to find her semicoherent, lying half in and half out of bed, looking strangely bluish, drenched in sweat, running a high fever and breathing in a harsh, shrill way.
"Send an ambulance right away," he wails to the 911 dispatcher. "Something's wrong with my agent!"
THE YOUNG DOCTOR ON CALL AT THE L.A. COUNty Department of Health Services Acute Communicable Disease Control Unit doesn't quite know what to make of all this anthrax anxiety when she receives the message on Saturday morning. No one gets anthrax in Los Angeles. It's a rural disease, and a rare one at that. But this morning she spoke with a Bellflower veterinarian who thought he might have a potbellied pig with anthrax, and then a resident at the UCLA Medical Center who says he has a delirious 34-year-old woman from Brentwood in critical condition with bluish skin. "We have her on a ventilator," the resident tells her. "This morning she kept asking for someone named Harvey, and when I took off her mask she coughed blood in my face."
"Yuck," says the county-health doctor. "But I don't understand. Why are you calling me?"
"Wow," she says, catching her breath. "Okay, I'm calling my team and we'll be right over." Second-stage anthrax isn't a subtle disease, she knows. And the first place it shows up is the lymph nodes in the chest. While the doctor is still on the freeway, she gets another call from the Bellflower veterinarian, who says he just spent an hour researching blue pig sores on the Internet. "And the symptoms are classic," he tells her. "The pig died of anthrax."
"Why do you say that?" asks the doctor.
"Have you heard of Sverdlovsk?"
As a matter of fact, she has. She'd had a lecture on it in medical school, and it gave her nightmares for a week. Sverdlovsk was the Ural Mountains town where the Bolsheviks executed Czar Nicholas II and his whole family. More recently it was also the site of a secret Soviet plant for manufacturing anthrax. In April 1979, maintenance workers removed clogged filters from the plant exhaust vent and then left a note telling the next shift to re-install clean filters before resuming production. The incoming crew missed the note and ran the plant without any filters for perhaps an hour, allowing perhaps a gram (one-twenty-eighth of an ounce) of weapons-grade anthrax to drift downwind in a long, invisible plume over fields, worker housing and a ceramics factory. Two days later, farmers started finding pigs covered with blue sores and dead sheep all over the place. Two days after that, people began showing up at hospitals, their skin blue, coughing up blood, complaining that their lungs were on fire, sweating profusely, and then in some cases dying on the spot. When pathologists did autopsies, they were stunned to discover that the victims' lungs had turned to jelly or that their brains were enveloped in bright-red sheaths.
No one in the West ever knew for sure how many people died in Sverdlovsk (the general in charge of the anthrax plant killed himself as soon as people started dying, and the KGB changed all the death certificates from anthrax to "food poisoning"), but estimates ranged from 68 to 300 or more. In an effort to limit the spread of the disease, the military ordered a dusk-to-dawn curfew. Low-flying aircraft sprayed chemicals over the fields and trees, while workers covered grassy areas with asphalt and lined ditches with concrete. All the local dogs were captured and killed. Because many victims died at home, authorities came to victims' houses, doused their bodies in bleach, wrapped them in plastic and hauled them away for burial. Then they took all the bed sheets and sprayed the dishes. A few days later, they dug up all the bodies and washed them all over again.
AS SOON AS THE COUNTY-HEALTH doctor arrives at the intensive care unit of UCLA's medical center, the first thing she sees is a social worker talking in the hallway to a bearded man with trembling hands and a stricken face. Inside intensive care, the nurses are distraught. "The woman died 15 minutes ago," the shaken resident tells the young doctor. "The blood culture is back now, too — and it's positive for anthrax."
The county-health doctor immediately reaches for her cell phone to notify her office, but events have already overtaken her. Twenty minutes earlier, a San Bernardino Fire Department HAZMAT team reported from the Mojave that they had just examined a Cessna 172 on Cadiz Dry Lake and the aircraft venturi (vacuum generator) was covered with a fine tan powder that appeared to be anthrax.