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
With that announcement, phone lines light up all over the state and country as calls go out to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the FBI, the Terrorism Early Warning group, the Department of Defense, Homeland Security, the White House, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Environmental Protection Agency, the governor, the mayor, the Coast Guard and the FAA. Shortly thereafter, behind an 8-foot fence topped with coiled razor wire at Los Angeles County's emergency operations center, on Eastern Avenue near Cal State Los Angeles, staffers rush to their seats behind a big horseshoe-shaped console filled with phones and computers. A similar scene takes place at the city emergency operations center, four stories under City Hall. In the meantime, over at LAX, a National Weather Service Doppler-radar operator pores over C-band weather tapes for the previous 48 hours until, around 11 p.m., he finally finds what he's been searching for — a small aircraft flying across LAX from north to south followed by a faint, rapidly vanishing trace, as might be caused by a mini-rain squall.
"There it is," he says.
"There's what?" asks the FAA supervisor.
"The cloud of anthrax. It starts over Brentwood, then goes in a straight line all the way to Long Beach."
"God help us," says the supervisor, reaching for the open line to NORAD.
Seven minutes later, at Fresno Air National Guard Base, an F-16 pilot throws down his coffee, runs from the ready room, slips into the cramped cockpit of the duty aircraft, fires up the engine and starts rolling even before he's fully strapped in. As soon as he reaches the runway, he punches in the afterburner, and the plane is airborne within eight seconds. Pulling back on the side-mounted control stick, the pilot puts the plane in a near-vertical climb. By the time the aircraft reaches the end of the field, it is already passing through 8,000 feet.
A little more than ten minutes after that, sleeping residents of Los Angeles are startled awake by repeated sonic booms as F-16s begin intercepting bewildered airline pilots who haven't quite gotten the word about the attack and thus are slightly off course, at the wrong altitude or squawking an incorrect transponder code. When residents turn on their TVs, they are astonished to see reporters wearing (useless but dramatic) khaki-colored war-surplus gas masks and doing standup commentary from Westside intersections as police cruisers and fire trucks, sirens wailing and lights flashing, race up and down the streets.
Relying on a Monterey Institute study showing that in light winds aerosolized anthrax spores tend to settle on the ground within the first 14 miles, a Sheriff's captain in the county emergency operations center draws a 27-by-14-mile rectangle on a map of L.A. County and arbitrarily designates it the "containment zone." The idea is to put squad cars at major intersections and wooden barricades everywhere else. He doesn't dare call it a quarantine. He might have been able to do that 100 years ago, when Americans still understood the dangers of polio or smallpox, but today most people would just tell the cop to screw himself.
As for evacuation, that is an even worse solution for a non-contagious disease like anthrax. It would take weeks to clear a city like Los Angeles — presuming you had a place to put 3.8 million former residents. Instead, starting at 6 a.m., an LAPD spokesman begins making a series of announcements on television, radio and all emergency frequencies telling residents to "shelter in place" — stay calm, stay indoors, tape the windows, bring in the pets, close chimney dampers, put towels in any door cracks and await further word.
At 10 a.m. Sunday morning, the Centers for Disease Control holds a press conference to announce that researchers at the Army infectious diseases research lab at Fort Detrich, Maryland, have just confirmed that the substance found on the Cessna venturi is finely milled, weapons-grade anthrax. Judging from the size of the stainless-steel container (the size of a 5-pound bag of flour), they estimate the weight of the release at 2 kilograms.
Over at Caltech, an assistant professor in biotechnology quickly figures out that a package that size amounts to some 10 trillion spores. Then referencing a Defense Intelligence Agency study that concluded that 50 percent of the people who inhale 25,000 spores apiece will die, the professor tells a reporter on live TV that there was enough anthrax on that plane to kill "200 million souls" (which is true enough only if one assumes that every single spore ends up in someone's lungs and not, as most do, on trees, lawns, roads and roofs).
People have been leaving Los Angeles all night, but with that announcement the floodgates break. Residents of the containment-zone area burst through wooden barricades, hurtle though intersections, ignore both traffic cops and signal lights, and fly up freeway on-ramps, only to discover a sea of brake lights. When northbound lanes on Interstate 5 become gridlocked, motorists drive on shoulders, median strips, or even switch over to the southbound lanes, instantly turning them into northbound lanes too.
Within hours there is a 400-mile traffic jam between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Gas stations quickly run out of fuel, but when station owners put up "No Gas" signs, infuriated motorists, in one instance, push over their gas pumps and, in another, shoot their windows out. Alternative routes quickly become impassable, too, as local vigilantes block routes into their towns with school buses and trailer trucks to keep out "infected" motorists from L.A.